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.

December 21, 2023

Important Holiday Choices

Well, it’s that time of year again. Christmas movie time. Maybe you’ve got a bunch on DVD or BluRay. Perhaps you’ve gone all digital. Heck, I think most streaming services have playlists ready and waiting for you.

I thought I’d take shameless advantage of the holidays to revisit an idea that I haven’t talked about in a while. It’s writing in-general relevant, but as we’ll see it crops up a lot in holiday movies. Especially…

Well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s start with basics.

A lot of story (in the bigger plot-vs-story sense) boils down to “what my character decides to do.” Are they going to play it safe, try to fade into the background, stay home and do those TPS reports? Or are they going take a stand, take a chance, and go on that adventure?

Usually these choices boil down to a binary. Do X or do Y. Suck it up or quit my job? Help the little girl or mind my own business? Tell the truth or try to keep it hidden for a little longer? There’s a few trillion examples of this. I tend to think of these as triangles. My character is one point (A), their two options (we’ll say B and C) are the other points. You’ve probably heard of romantic triangles, yes? That’s a pretty standard dramatic device that pops up in a lot of stories.

Now, here’s the catch. Triangles—of any sort—only really work when B and C are both viable options. If my choices are stay late at my soul-crushing job where I’m unappreciated or go see my kid’s school play… well, that’s not much of a choice, is it? and if my protagonist chooses to stay at work, well… what does that say about them?

Granted, there might be a very good reason to stay at work that counterbalances this. Maybe there’s a big bonus they really need for finishing on time? Could a promotion be in the balance? Heck, maybe they’re helping someone else out. No point both of us missing the play—you go, I’ll get all this cleaned up. All these are good, viable things. But they need to be there for that balance to work. Otherwise, my character’s just making bad choices.

This imbalance shows up a lot in romantic triangles. One person is sweet and funny and supportive and attractive and the other side is… well, horrible. Selfish. Self-absorbed. They scowl so much they have permanent wrinkles in their forehead—and they’re only 23! I mean, if my choice is to be with Sam or be with Roy, and Roy is a misogynistic Nazi… well, that’s not much of a choice, is it?

When we don’t have balanced options, there isn’t a lot of dramatic weight to the actual choice. It’s like Eddie Izzard’s old “cake or death” routine. It’s not that surprising that everybody picks cake. And if I base my whole story around “gosh, will Jamie pick cake or death? Which one’s she going to choose?!?”… I mean, it won’t really shock anyone when Jamie picks up the dessert fork, right? It’s not exactly a surprise outcome.

So when my characters needs to make choices, there has to be some value to each choice. It needs to be a choice that takes effort to make. If there isn’t, I run the risk of them looking… well, a little foolish at best.

Also, just to save someone the time, yes, sometimes my two options are both bad choices. But that’s still a choice with dramatic weight. Let your best friend die or let a hundred strangers die? Starve to death or cut off your own arm?

Now, on that note, I told you all this so I can talk about Christmas movies…

Christmas movies are a solid, dependable genre. And a subgenre of several other standard movies, too. People try to sound intellectual and artsy by talking about superhero fatigue, but in all seriousness—Christmas movies are the real machine. Look at Hallmark, Disney, and Netflix and add up how many new Christmas films and specials they’ve made between them this year. You’ll hit double digits, easy. Might even get close to triple digits. And that’s just three streamers! I mean, at this point Shudder’s got a very solid Christmas sub-genre going.

Now, one recurring theme we see a lot is the Christmas romance. Yeah, don’t lie. You’ve seen a lot of them. Probably this year. They can be oddly comforting, even though some of them are also really awkward and fumbly.

I’d like to talk about the awkward ones.

A pretty standard Christmas romance goes something like this. A young woman (it’s almost always a woman) falls for a guy who’s a few weeks away from getting engaged, married, etc. The two of them have chemistry, while his current partner rages away at her big corporate job, becomes a larval Bridezilla, or maybe is just a generally awful person. Eventually the guy comes to see the error of his ways and our two impossibly good-looking people end up together just in time to kiss on Christmas Eve.

(you know which movie I’m talking about, right?)

Now right off the bat, this is one of those unbalanced triangles I was talking about above. One good choice, one awful choice. Wow, what a shock how things went, right?

But there’s another problem here that’s a little tougher to notice at first glance. A really basic flaw in how a lot of these holiday movies set up their triangle. It’s why they always come across as a bit weird and the protagonists always seem a bit… well, wrong. And I think it’s one of those things that’s really easy for me to avoid once I see it all laid out

Let’s use that basic structure up above for our example. Our test story, so to speak. Alexis (A) has a meet-cute with Ben (B), who is in a relationship with Chloe (C). Amy and Ben have chemistry, Chloe is bordering on (if not openly) awful and clearly wrong for Ben. And it’s Christmas because… y’know, that’s when this always seems to happen.

Now, normally in one of these romantic triangle situations, our protagonist would be Ben. After all, he’s the one who needs to make a choice here, right? He needs to be active and decide if he wants to be with Alexis or Chloe.

But

See here’s where it gets weird. Our protagonist is Alexis, but she’s technically the B in our “choose B or C” triangle scenario. So Ben’s the one choosing (the A), and she’s the one getting… chosen? See, that’s confusing just typing it out.

Plus, the only way I can make Alexis active in this situation is to have her do some, well, questionable things. If she tries to improve her relationship with Ben—all those normal romance beats like long talks and quiet dinners and shared passions—well, that kinda means she’s undercutting Ben’s relationship with Chloe. Which is a little tough, morally, no matter what we think of Chloe. And geeeeez, if things get physical to any level, well, now they both look bad. Alexis is making moves on somebody in a relationship. And Ben’s hooking up with someone else? I mean, how awful does Chloe have to be for us to be cool with him cheating on her? And if she’s not that bad, then… well, yeah, he’s a jerk. So why does Alexis want to be with him?

Yeah, okay, sometimes odd things happen between people in really specific situations. Everybody reacts differently to stress and fear and all that. Firm embraces may happen. Maybe even a kiss or desperate proclamation. But that’s a reeeeeeeeally fine line. Scary fine. It’s so easy for that situation to go from somewhat one-time excusable to what-the-hell inappropriate.

Y’see, Timmy, as I mentioned above, when Alexis is this point in the triangle, she isn’t the one with a choice to make. Not a real one, anyway. So she has two options. She can do nothing (which ends the story pretty quick) or she can try to disrupt Ben and Chloe’s relationship. Those are her only paths, as far as our plot goes, and neither of them is a great one from a storytelling point of view.

I think when writers make this mistake, they’re confusing the outcome with the choices that lead to it. We’ve all heard “the ends justify the means,” but this tends to ignore that the means I use also determines what kind of end I get. And more importantly, how we perceive those end results. There’s a bunch of ways Alexis and Ben can end up together, but a lot of those paths can make one (or both) of them into characters we don’t really like or care about. In some cases, we may even be actively rooting against them. Cause they’ll be horrible people.

Don’t worry about outcomes. Outcomes are the conclusion of a story. Think about the path to that outcome. The choices my character has to make in order to get there.

Because those choices are my story. They’re my plot. And if there aren’t any real choices, or they’re all being made by supporting characters, or they’re all just questionable, really bad choices… well…

I shouldn’t be shocked if people think it’s a bad story.

Speaking of stories and holidays, here’s a shameless reminder that ebooks and audiobooks make fantastic last-minute gifts. Have I mentioned those two anthologies that just came out? I’ve got a story in Joe Ledger: Unbreakable and one in The Reinvented Detective. And both of them have loose tie-ins to other work (hint hint hint).

Next time, I’ll probably do one of those annual round up/ list of accomplishment things all the cool kids are doing.

Until then, go write.

And have a happy and peaceful holiday season.

I’m not going to lie. This has been a very stressful year for me. It’s basically been eight months of construction all around my home. Random noise. Random activity. Random changes that’ve spilled over onto my home. My productivity’s way down, and it’s been very hard to relax.

What this means (among other things) is I didn’t read a lot this year. No where near my usual. Not even two dozen books. And six of those were blurb books. So while I enjoyed most of them, reading them did have a slight “work” aspect to it that kept me from sinking in as much as I normally might. Always a good sign when I’m reading a book for a blurb and forget why I’m reading it because it’s just that good…

Anyway, it’s Cyber-Monday and, look, if you like artists, they usually get to make a lot more art when they have money. And then they tend to get money when people buy their art. So I thought—as I have in the past—I’d tell you about some of the books I really enjoyed this year. If you follow me on social media, you may’ve seen me blab on about some of these during the past year. And maybe now you can add them to your holiday wishlist or maybe pick one up for that certain special someone. Then you (or they) get some cool stories, those artists get some money, and the cycle can continue.

(also, shop locally if you can–that way money goes to you friendly neighborhood bookstore and back into your community)

Hellraiser: Bloodline by Peter Atkins– you may be familiar with the infamous “Hellraiser in Space” movie. What you may not know is it had a seriously fantastic script that was butchered by, well, all the usual suspects. Now you can read the original story and imagine the movie that should’ve been. Highly recommended for Hellraiser fans.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells– I didn’t get to read much this year, but I managed to catch up on all the fantastic Murderbot books, about the rogue SecUnit that’s (grudgingly) learning about emotions and friendship and multi-seasonal soap operas. And then a new book came out, like, two weeks ago (System Collapse) and now I’m behind again. But you can learn from my mistakes. Buy someone the whole set so they can read them all at once.

Shakedown by Scott Sigler – I got to read this one early and it’s one of those books where I have to just say I’m jealous as hell and I can’t wait for the next one. Basically it’s about an officer in a future war sentenced (wrongly?) to serve on a… prison ship? Experimental ship? Cursed ship? Who can say what it is. If you like military thrillers, this is for you. Sub hunts? This is for you. Sci-fi with a creepy edge? SO for you.

Walking the Dusk by Mike Robinson– this is another book I got to blurb this year, and another wonderfully creepy one. There’s just this fantastic sense of dread all through this tale of a college professor trying to remember one childhood summer with his big sister and his possibly imaginary friend, along with lots of pondering about identity vs memory, a personal favorite of mine.

Red Rabbit by Alex Grecian – not so much a weird western as more of a western with supernatural elements? I’m almost tempted to call it a period urban fantasy, if that makes sense? Whatever you want to call it, it’s a beautiful slow-burn of a book about an odd mix of characters who end up traveling cross-country to kill a witch. There’s still a few weeks left, but this is one of my favorite things I read this year.

Cult Classic by Stephen Blackmoore – very possibly the last Eric Carter book, but damn does Stephen stick the landing on this one. The recently-resurrected Carter is trying to deal with his reputation as one of the most powerful/dangerous mages in the country, a rookie cop with a rare magical knack, magical timeslips, and an actual Oracle who can see the future. I’ve been telling you to read these books for years, and if you’re shopping for one of those people who won’t start a series until it’s done… well, now’s the time to give them a big block of urban fantasy.

The Ghost Job by Greg van Eekhout– A freakin’ adorable YA tale of a team of dead kids who pull heists for various magical relics and artifacts. I heard Greg talk about this a year or so back and was hooked then. In all fairness, as I write this I’m not quite halfway through, but I’m loving it so far and Greg has a pretty solid track record, as far as I’m concerned (see also: Fenris & Mott), so I think you should just go for it and pick this up.

And that’s all of them from this year. Do you have any suggestions of your own? Drop ’em in the comments, please! Other than that… yeah, that’s all I’ve got for you.

Well, I mean, there’s all my books, too. I’d never object if you want to give someone a nice hardcover of The Broken Room or a copy of Paradox Bound or The Fold for them to stick on their shelves. Heck, on a related note, I mentioned I’m signing at Dark Delicacies on December 9th, right? Order something from them now and I can sign it for you (or someone else) then. Just give them a call.

And finally, if all this talk about buying books as gifts is getting you a bit depressed for financial reasons, may I wave you back towards the Black Friday offer. Maybe we should talk.

Anyway, happy Cyber-Monday. Hope something here caught your eye…

November 24, 2023 / 1 Comment

Black Friday X – Black Friday In Space

Eventually, all the franchises end up in space.

Well, I guess it’s time I gave the talk…

If you’re sort of new to my writing, me, and/ or the ranty blog, you probably don’t know that I went through a very solid bout of poverty on my path to becoming a semi-successful writer. I’d been making an okay living in the film industry, and when I moved to freelance journalism it was a little tighter but still livable. Then the economy crumbled in 2008 and the magazine I did most of my writing for started to flounder. Paychecks started to lag, and I pretty much had to blackmail the publisher for three of them (never got my last one). I had a few unexpected-but-completely-normal expenses (car repairs, a sick cat, a lost filling).

And then after about a year and a half of this… I had nothing.

And to be clear, I mean, nothing. Savings completely gone. Credit cards maxed out. My partner and I lived right at the federal poverty line for almost three years. In Los Angeles. We shopped pretty much exclusively at the 99¢ Store. Our phone got shut off. We had no internet at home, so we used the library’s wifi for everything (go libraries!), and while we were there we’d steal a roll or three of toilet paper (sorry, libraries). We didn’t turn the heat on for two winters in a row. Hell, for one assignment I had to beg an editor to loan me gas money so I could drive to a screening he’d asked me to cover.

Three years like that. Three. Years. Constantly stressed. Constantly feeling like crap.

Especially at the holidays.

The holiday season’s the worst when you’re poor. You can’t afford to buy gifts for family or friends. You can’t afford to travel. Hell, there were times we got invited to nice Christmas parties and had to skip them because we couldn’t afford to park where they were being held (friggin’ LA). Being poor at the holidays means you end up feeling isolated at a time when people are supposed to be coming together.

And I ended up feeling guilty about it, too. I spent time stressing about if maybe there was something else I could’ve done with my at the time floundering career. About the people I loved who it felt like I was neglecting. About what people thought about me, being so poor I couldn’t even get something for my significant other or my family.

Being poor means feeling like that all the time. Pretty much from mid-November to mid January. Nothing but guilt and dread and shame and self-doubt.

Being poor at the holidays absolutely sucks.

Now, all that said… I’m in a better position these days, and I owe a good part of that to all of you. Because for some reason you like these odd stories I tell. And if I can help some of you avoid feeling miserable this holiday season, I’d like to do it.

So here’s the deal. If you’re in that bad place right now, where you can’t afford to give gifts to your family or friends, send me a message at PeterClines101@yahoo.com . I’ve got maybe a dozen random books, and I might be able to scrounge up two or three more if need be. I’ll scribble in one and mail it out to you (postage is on me, too). I’ll even throw in wrapping paper if you need it. If you know your gift-target would like a specific book, feel free to request it, but please understand I can’t promise anything, sorry (I have what I have). I’ll send them out for as long as the books last or December 11th-ish (for shipping reasons), whichever comes first.

It’s not much, I know. But it’ll be a gift you can give someone. And maybe you can feel a little less stressed and shamed at the holidays.

Again, this is for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people cutting back on everything, pulling unemployment, and feeling like crap because they can’t afford holiday gifts for family or friends. This isn’t so you can recommend someone in a bad spot who might like a book. You could do that for them. Seriously, go buy them a book. And buy locally! Support your local bookstores

Also—almost every year two or three folks offer to help out with this. Thanks so much for the thought, but you don’t need to do this for me. You can go be fantastic people all on your own. I guarantee, there’s a toy bank or food bank or some kind of program within ten miles of you right now that could really use some help. And you could be the person to give that help.

And finally, I’m doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save some cash or score an autographed book from my limited supply… well, I won’t be able to stop you. Just know you’re a truly selfish, deplorable person and you’re taking away what might’ve been someone’s only bright moment this season. And Krampus will feed you to a squale because of it.

So… Happy Holidays.

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