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.

October 12, 2021

Behind the Mask!

Oddly enough, not a Halloween-themed post. Although… maybe it is. It’s all perspective, I guess.

Since I first started taking this whole writing thing seriously, there’s been a general mindset I’ve seen bubble to the surface once a year or so. Maybe more in some places. It’s the idea that I can’t write about X if I haven’t personally experienced X. Can’t write it well, that’s for sure. If X hasn’t been an integral part of my life at some point or another, I’m just wasting everyone’s time by trying to write about it. Definitely by putting that writing out there. It’s a version of the old “write what you know” superball that gets bounced around. If you’ve never known X, you certainly can’t write about X.

Starting out in the horror community, I’d see this again and again. The folks who’d insist it just wasn’t possible to write horror without a horrific, awful background. You want to write horror? Real horror, not this weak “vampires and demons and zombies” crap? Well you better have fought in a war and had several people killed in front of you. Or had a horribly abusive family. All your pets better be dead, and most of your friends too, and if you’re not dealing with it through life-crippling addiction to something, you’re just a goddamn tourist who has no business in this genre.

Because of this, I’d see some folks get scared off from their chosen genre. Have I experienced real, soul-wrenching love? I mean, really experienced it? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing romance. My parents loved me a lot, I get along well with my brother, and I’ve got a bunch of really cool friends. Maybe I don’t have any business writing horror. And, heck, I’ve never even killed a human being before. I guess murder mysteries really aren’t for me.

At least, that’s what notorious serial killer Sue Grafton always said.

And a friend of mine recently pointed out this is such a pervasive idea that even some readers believe it. There’s no way I could write about a character that awful unless I myself am truly that awful, right? I mean, somebody couldn’t just make that stuff up, right? If one of my characters has sex more than twice, I’m clearly a sex addict (and let’s not even talk about what their chosen sex position says about me). Heck, I think I’ve talked before the weirdness that can happen when you name a character after a family member or friend without thinking about it.

Now, before I go any further… as I mentioned above, this has all been proven wrong again and again. Seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely some horror writers out there who’ve seen some awful stuff and I’ve known one or two folks over the years who’ve written intense erotica as an outlet when, y’know, no other outlet was available. There are some action writers out there who have very intense backgrounds in the military or private security, and a few sci-fi writers with pretty solid scientific credentials.

But I also know a ton of horror writers who had really nice childhoods and now live very happy lives, without a single dismemberment or traumatic beating or other ghastly event in their past or present. I know action writers who haven’t been in a single barfight or high speed chase or gun battle. I know people with no military experience  who write very successful military books. There are more than a few sci-fi writers who haven’t traveled in time or even left earth orbit once. And I know people who write sex scenes in their books who have, if I may be so bold, fairly vanilla sex lives. At least, going off all the pictures one of them showed me. Like, insisted on showing me.

That was a really weird brunch.

Anyway…

I think all of this ties back to a few things I’ve talked about here a few times. So I thought  maybe it’d be worth mentioning a few totally valid ways we can write about things we haven’t actually experienced. For example…

Voice—A big step for all of us is the day we realize midwestern grocery store clerks don’t talk the same way as third-generation bio-apocalypse survivors. Dwarven warrior queens have a different vocabulary than techbro CEOs. And fresh-out-of-grad-school schoolteachers don’t sound the same as battle-hardened Army sergeants. And getting that voice right, knowing how she’d say this vs. how he’d say it vs. how I’d say it is a big step in our growth as writers.

Research—seriously, we live in a freakin’ golden age of resources for writers. I’ve been doing this just long enough that I remember ads in the back of magazines for small press books about what it’s really like to be a doctor or a homicide detective . Or I’d spend hours in the library trying to find pictures of Paristhat didn’t involve the Eiffel Toweror a museum. These days, if I need to know something I have access to so many sources. I can find research papers or anecdotal accounts or heck, even actual people who will answer my questions or help me find the answers, and usually tell me some other useful things if I’m paying attention.

Extrapolation— I’ve never been shot in the knee, but I’ve had the meniscus behind my kneecap rupture (and collapse again and again and again). I’ve never done super heavy drugs but I’ve been very drunk a few times. I’ve never been able to fly, but when I was a kid there was a bridge in my hometown we all used to jump off into the river. Yeah, these experiences aren’t the same, but I can use them as building points. If this registers as a six, what would a nine be like? If it felt like this for ten seconds, what would it feel like after twenty? Or thirty? I stayed conscious here but would that much short out my brain for a few seconds (from pain or pleasure or excessive introduced chemicals)? It’s a basic creativity exercise. 

Empathy—I’ve talked about empathy here a few times, and I have to say once again it’s the most important trait a writer can have. Seriously. It’s what everything here really boils down to. Being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never had a parent die, but I’ve had friends who did. I’ve never served in the military, but I have family who did. I’ve never been married or had kids or burned dinner when someone’s coming over I really want to impress. But I look at my friends and family, I listen to them, I take note of what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, and I try to relate it to things I’ve gone through. I try to imagine how I’d feel in a similar situation, based off my own experiences. And I use some of that in stories.

In fact, let’s take this one step further and address one of the points that started this off. If I’m going to tell someone they can’t write great horror unless they’ve been through awful stuff (like I have)… well, isn’t that kind of implying I don’t have great empathy? I mean, think about it. I’m saying I can only write this because I experienced it, and I’m also admitting I can’t imagine being a person who can write it without experiencing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that’s something I should be bragging about.

Y’see, Timmy, much like “write what you know,” this mindset assumes people can’t learn or grow or imagine anything. And if I want to be a good writer, I have to be able to do that. I can’t tell myself not to write about bank robbery until I’ve actually tried to rob a bank. Hell, where does that people who write murder mysteries? Or giant robot sci-fi? Or dark period fantasy. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with at least three people from the twelfth century, how do you expect to write medieval romance? I need to understand most writers research things, extrapolate feelings and reactions, get inside their character’s heads, and just try to have an honest sense of what someone else would feel in this situation.

Look, the truth is, if I’m doing my job right, you should feel like all my characters are real people in real situations. The janitor. The nymphomaniac barista. The half-human, reluctant cultist. The little kid with PTSD. The burned-out secret agent trying to forget most of his life. The world-ending cosmic event that they’re all tied up together in. And when we read a description of a real person, when we hear about the believable, relatable aspects of their life, it’s natural for us to assume they’re… well, real.

And the obvious real person is me, the author, telling you this story. So it’s not surprising some people think I must’ve experienced these things firsthand.

But I shouldn’t need to.

Anyway…

Next time, I want to throw a bunch of characters at the wall and see which ones stick.

Until then, go write.

February 11, 2021

Love, by the Numbers

Yes, there’s love in the air this weekend. Well, love and covid. Probably why I forgot to line up a holiday-related post.

Most folks enjoy a good romance because most of us have either been in love, are in love, or want to be in love. It’s a wonderful feeling. Heck those first few months of giddy romance are just fantastic, aren’t they? Love is great because we can relate to it.  We believe in it. For the most part, we enjoy seeing other people in love.

If those three traits sound familiar—relatable, believable, likable—it’s because I’ve mentioned them three or fourteen times as the traits of good characters.  So a good romance can be a powerful tool in a story, because it immediately grounds one or two of my characters.

However…

I’m betting most of us have read a book or watched a movie where, with no warning, two characters start professing their mad love for each other. No preamble, no chemistry, they just suddenly start flirting on page 108 and they’re making long-term plans by 200.

Nobody likes emotional fakery, and few things can weight a story down like a pasted-on love interest. It just feels insincere and artificial. We roll our eyes when it’s in books and laugh when it’s in movies. And probably groan either way.

Anyway, I figure it’s been a while so for this Valentine’s Day let’s revisit my patented** Rules of Love that can help you write a wonderful, believable love story.

**not actually patented

The First Rule of Love –As I was just saying, love needs real emotions, and I can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. Maybe not entirely rational ways, granted, but still believably realistic.

My characters are going to have needs and desires, likes and dislikes.  And it’ll stand out if they make choices that go against those traits. Yes, opposites attract—they even have a lot of fun together—but if we’re talking about real people, odds are these two are going to have more in common than not. Wall Street hedge fund managers don’t usually have a lot in common with mural artists.

Also, how fast and how far my characters take things should be consistent with who they are. They can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward.  Some people schedule every hour of every day, others don’t own a clock. For some folks it’s a major moment to have that first cautious, fleeting kiss on the third date, and some people are tearing each other’s clothes off in the hall closet half an hour after they meet.

Short and simple version, my characters need to be believable if their love is going to be believable.

The Second Rule of Love  –Show of hands—who’s ever had somebody try to push you into a relationship? Maybe it’s friends or coworkers. Hopefully it’s not relatives, because that’s always kinda… weird. Maybe it’s the person you’re on the date with and they’re talking weddings and kids before you’ve ordered drinks. Which is even more weird.

It might just be me, but I think in all these cases the result is we want to get away from the object of our potential affection. Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and so we don’t enjoy seeing other people forced into things. That’s just human nature.

Now, for the record, “somebody” includes me, the writer. Characters need their own reasons and motivations to get into a relationship. I can’t just have them doing things (or people) for the convenience of the plot. If I’ve based my whole story around the hedge fund manager and the artist coming together to save the art school (and discovering their mutual attraction in the process), then I still need a real reason for them to get together, because they’re real people (as mentioned in the First Rule). 

Again, people get together because they want to get together, not because other folks think they should be together.

The Third Rule of Love – This one also counts as real-world advice. We shouldn’t confuse sex with love. We’re all adults, and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at the time. Or at any time later. There are lots of points in a story where it might be completely acceptable for two people to have sex. Sex is fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It can distract us from thinking about other things for a while. Heck, it can even keep you warm.

But sex doesn’t always lead directly to love. In stories or in the real world. If my two characters fall into bed (or into a back seat, or up against a wall, on a desk, etc), I need to be clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced (refer to the Second Rule).

TL;DR… sex and love are not the same thing.

The Fourth Rule of Love—This one can be hard to grasp because Hollywoodkeeps telling us otherwise.  How often in movies can you immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as they’re introduced? It doesn’t matter what kind of film it is or what’s going on, it’s easy to pick them out the first time they appear.  You may have heard of a certain moment called the “meet-cute,” for example

But y’see, Timmy, the simple truth is…  romance doesn’t always fit in a story. Somebody might be fighting for their life, in hiding, or so terrified they’re an inch away from a heart attack. Maybe they’re already in a relationship with someone else. Maybe they just have no interest in that sort of connection right now—emotional or physical.

Forcing a relationship in these situations also risks making one or both characters seem very unlikable. If I’ve already established one set of relationships, trying to force new ones can create a lot of… complications.

I mean, we’ve all been there. Sometimes… it’s just not going to happen.

So there are the Rules of Love. Now go forth this weekend and spread the love. Where appropriate.  Don’t be that guy. Really, just don’t be that person.

Next time, I promise… Cloverfield. It’s going to be fantastic.

Until then, go write.

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