Category Archives: Writing fiction

Writing Sex Scenes: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Please note: This chapter contains a scene that may not be appropriate for all readers. If you are uncomfortable with depiction of sexuality, please pass over this chapter.

29

Writing Sex Scenes

One of my clients was wrestling with the question of how to present a sex scene between his two favorite characters. He would swing between flummoxed (oh, no! writer’s block!) and exuberant (yipes!). Though I recognized that there’s an in-between, I also found myself wrestling: trying to explain how to handle it.

When an author addresses the sexual frolics of a story’s characters, he or she confronts a slew of challenges:

  • One’s own hang-ups.
  • One’s own fantasies (Even in fiction, there’s such a thing as over-sharing . . .)
  • The characters’ hang-ups and fantasies
  • The influence of other authors’ sex scenes (“and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)
  • The sense that it is impossible to improve on some other author’s sex scene (see above.)
  • Political correctness
  • Resentment of political correctness
  • Absence of political correctness
  • Expectations of the perceived audience
  • Imagined or real hang-ups of the perceived audience

One could go on at length. As it were.

We could add to the list of challenges: “The essential ludicrousness of the sex act between human beings and the difficulty of making a love scene appear less than (or more than) ludicrous.”

I try to advise, but am limited by all of the above. I certainly have written a number of very randy sex scenes, one of which, with some trepidation, I copy and send over to him as a sort of example.

This gets him past his Victorian mores and jump-starts a pretty lively exchange between the characters. But now I think the result is a bit much. Baroque, even.

When it comes to writing sex, there’s a fine line between not enough and too much; between wimpy and creepy. And as for what the readers want to read? It’s anyone’s guess.

Personally, I think the writer is better served by restraint than by extravagance, where sexuality is concerned. Tone it up. Tone it down. But make it part of the story.

As a real-life human being’s sexuality cannot be divorced from his or her experience and milieu, so a fictional character’s sex life must fit into the plot and the action. Whatever that character gets up to must relate in some way, preferably in a significant way, to the ongoing narrative.

From one of our pseudonymous authors writing as Roberta Stuart comes a passage from Cabin Fever. In that novelette, a crusty sea-salt of a lady yacht cabin hires a young man to help crew her boat across the Caribbean so that she can meet some tourists who await her arrival. At the outset, she takes him for a rich-boy frat rat looking for a little adventure, but as the story proceeds we see he’s deeper than that. The two fight the attraction slowly growing between them…until that fateful night…

When my alarm woke me at midnight, the chop had subsided somewhat. I climbed the ladder and stepped into a world transformed.

The moon was high and full, and all around me, the sea glowed as if lit from within. Millions of plankton, too small to be seen with the naked eye, hung suspended in the water. And everywhere, as the water moved and the moon struck them, they lit with a bioluminescent glow.

Pete needs to see this.

I bolted back down the ladder. “Pete!”

He sat bolt upright, and if we’d had stacked bunks, he’d have put himself out like a light. “What’s wrong?” He lunged for his shorts.

I hadn’t meant to worry him. “Nothing’s wrong. Something I want you to see, is all.”

He let out his breath. “Oh. Okay.” He rummaged for his shorts.

“Never mind that! Who’s going to see you? Come on! I bolted back topside without waiting to see whether he followed.

He did, of course. He stopped short halfway out of the hatch.

“Wow,” he breathed. He came up the rest of the way and turned in a slow circle, taking it in. “It—it’s beautiful.”

I swallowed hard. No matter how many times I’d seen it, it always got me that way, too. “Go up front and look at the bow.”

By the time I’d checked the readings and updated the log, Pete was standing braced at the front of the boat, watching the phosphorescent wave rolling away from the bow. “It’s like magic,” he said when he heard me behind him.

“Yeah.”

I sat down on the decking, and after a moment, Pete flopped down beside me, his leg warm against mine.

“Bioluminescent plankton,” I told him, a little short of breath. “The moonlight hits them and they—”

“I know.” A slow grin spread across his face. “I’ve heard of it, but I never thought I’d get to see it. Thank you.” His eyes watered up a little. “Thank you.” And before I knew he was going to do it, he leaned down and kissed me, very gently, right on the lips.

Bad idea. Terrible idea. I drew back to tell him so, and then I was kissing him, full on, my arm coming up around his neck to steady us both.

We fell back on the deck together, side by side. Our arms came around each other, and our legs tangled as we pressed close together.

Pete’s hands came up to cup my breasts through my shirt, thumbs squeezing my nipples gently. I groaned and ran my fingernails up his spine, goading him.

His tongue darted between my lips and slid away, and mine chased it eagerly. It felt wonderful, lying here on Fever’s deck with his hands and mouth on me, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

I cupped his balls through his shorts, then squeezed his hard-on. He groaned into my mouth. “I want you,” I growled.

“God, yes!” Pete reached down and freed his cock from his shorts, and I slithered out of my panties, kicking them away.

His eyes widened when I rolled him onto his back and straddled him. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, it— Yeah. It’s great.” His cock twitched beneath me. “It’s wonderful.”

I lined us up and he slid into me, filling me. Damn, it felt good!

Pete’s hands came up to squeeze my breasts again. I yanked my shirt over my head, swung it like a rodeo cowboy, and let it fly. I thought it landed somewhere on the boathouse.

Fever pitched a little, and I grabbed Pete’s arm to steady myself. I leaned back and slapped his thigh. “Lift up a little.” He brought his knees up a bit and I tucked my heels under his thighs, locking us together. There was no way I was coming off him now, not even if we both slid right off the deck. Pete propped his hands up and I braced myself on them and began to ride.

I rode with the motion of the boat, letting it move me. Up and up as we crested a wave, then down into the trough, Pete plunging deep into me. As we bottomed out, I ground hard against his pubic bone. Then the next wave was lifting me, and I was soaring higher and higher into the night air.

Up. Down. Around. Up. Down. Around.

I could have gone on like that forever, surging and falling with the sea. But all too soon, my orgasm came crashing over me like a wave.

Like any scene in a piece of fiction, the effective sex scene does more than add spice. Otherwise you get a hot tamale with no interest other than its jalapeños. Not that we don’t enjoy the occasional hot tamale . . . but Man cannot live on jalapeños alone.

This passage echoes not only the sights and feel of the open ocean but resonates with the characters’ faltering resistance to their mutual attraction. It continues to characterize the two while it moves the plot’s action forward.

A sex scene needs to add spice. But it also needs to serve another purpose. Jalapeños, after all, are full of vitamin C.

What NOT to do . . .

My goodness, there’s some bad writing out there! Most “erotic romances” are awful: graced with dangling modifiers (some of them truly funny), typos, unidiomatic language (“grinded”; “withering” for “writhing”; and on and on), lapses in point of view, characters dissolving pointlessly in laughter, eye-glazing clichés . . .

Oh, well. Clearly literature is not what people are buying the things for.

Some erotica does display workmanlike writing, and some stories are even done with style and humor. But even those self-consciously deploy tried-and-true tropes. There’s a sameness to the things, especially where the female characters are concerned.

The female character almost invariably is said to be lonely: either she describes herself as lonely, explicitly, or some other character observes or speculates that she’s lonely.

As the story unwinds, the woman is “rescued” in some way from an unhappy relationship with a former husband or boyfriend. The male lover(s)’ sex is better, kinder, hotter, more positive all the way around.

The female character yearns for change or sometimes simply for an outrageous spree.

She often is described as feeling self-conscious or insecure about herself.

Attraction is immediate, as you’d expect in such short pieces—the characters lust after each other at first glance.

Men are described as “gods.”

Men are often described as cooking or doing some other domestic activity; this seems to be part of their appeal or at least a repeating trope.

We’ll redact some of the other observations, lest the young, the impressionable, or the tender be reading. Suffice it to say that all the way across the board, a kind of monotony reigns.

It explains why some very, very silly things rise to the top in the erotic romance genre. Like the series about the woman who gets it on with Bigfoot.

Yes. That one is said to be authored by a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the kiddies.

Erotica vs. porn

In front of me I had the work of an author who would like to publish with Camptown Races Press and whom we would like to have writing for us. After plowing through his current effort, I thought, Where’s my coffee? Toss in an extra shot of espresso, please. . .

Once again I tried, as I have tried with various scribblers in the past, to explain about writing sex scenes. This boils down, really, to explaining the difference between erotica and pornography.

Pornography is a variety of erotica, but erotica is not a variety of pornography. As author Kate Douglas wrote in her essay “Writing the Fine Line between Erotica and Porn” (published in Shoshanna Evers’s collection, How to Write Hot Sex), the term erotic means “having to do with sexual love; amatory.” Pornography is “intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” Amatory has to do with love, whereas unalloyed sexual desire amounts to lust.

There’s a difference.

Theme & Symbol in Fiction: The Complete Writer *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

28

Theme and Symbol

When you’re writing fiction, theme is crucial, as we all know. Theme is what your story is about. Not the action, not the plotline, but what the story signifies—its overall meaning or message.

Not all stories can be said to have a “meaning” in some deep, artsy way. Genre fiction often exists to amuse, and so its authors can get away with recycling canned plot lines and characters developed in previous novels. But in my never-too-humble opinion, a genre novel that is just a reiteration of some canned theme is not very good reading. The best genre fiction, like the fiction we regard as “literature,” is trying to tell us something.

Think of your favorite genre fiction. These days I spend a great deal of time watching Poirot and Murdoch, themselves latter-day spinoffs of my hero Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. On the surface, they’re just detective stories. Their characterization makes them interesting. But below the surface, they all have thematic currents that carry over from story to story and that keep us coming back.

In any detective story, as we know, there’s the underlying theme of good vs. evil. In Sherlock Holmes we can discern a number of themes, one of them the power of science and intellect to combat evil. We see the same theme arise in the Murdoch mysteries, but there it’s combined with a pattern of frustrated love. Murdoch also represents the efforts of gifted women to escape societal oppression, a theme that recurs frequently throughout the series. In Poirot, the strangeness of the protagonist is just a thread in the thematic strangeness of the culture in which he moves—our culture, heaven help us!

So, what is your story about?

The first installment of my post-apocalyptic series, Fire-Rider, developed around the protagonist’s weariness with his people’s endless wars and his growing sense that much of what he has devoted his life to—revenge, disruption, and an allegedly infallible religion—is simply wrong. This theme couples with his famed wiliness—the character echoes Odysseus in a number of aspects—which can verge into duplicity when he uses it among his own people to get his way.

The second theme—duplicity and deceit—resurfaces in Book II, where it elides with issues of sin, error, and forgiveness. The second book’s theme suggests that if you really want to be macho, you must learn to forgive.

It’s tricky to weave these threads into a book-length work without shoving them in the reader’s face and without making them look forced. By and large, some hint of the theme, shown in action or setting, needs to appear early on, maybe even in the first few paragraphs. But it’s something that needs to be shown, not lectured about: for that reason one should avoid presenting any direct exposition of the theme in dialogue or narrative. At least, so I think.

Rules, as we know, are made to be broken . . . though probably that should not even be thought of as a “rule.” It’s just one scribbler’s opinion.

Fire-Rider opens with a group of characters expressing sentiments exactly the opposite of the theme represented by the protagonist’s experience. The first two and a half pages show comrades in arms celebrating their triumph over an enemy city that they have breached, sacked, and burned. Not until this scene is firmly set and action has begun does a suggestion of the protagonist’s troubled heart appear:

[Kaybrel, his fierce young sidekick Fallon, and his cousin Mitch] stood taking in the view, the torched city a roaring, gaudy backdrop to the activity on the plain before it.

“Must do your heart good,” Fal said to Kay.

“You bet,” Kay said.

But his eyes said something else, Fal saw, the expression gray and pensive, far from the unrestrained joy Fallon would have felt had he stood in Kay’s boots. Tired, maybe: the fight was hard-won, and Kay and Fal had put themselves at the front line.

As for Kay, the man of the moment: What was he feeling? The smoky breeze combed his grizzled beard and hair like the hand of a woman who had been working by the kitchen hearth. He thought of Maire and the child. When he looked at the devastation below him, he did not, could not think of bygone sorrow or of the years spread out between past loss and present victory. Instead, he thought of going home.

The narrative touches on this and then moves on. Over the course of the entire novel, Kaybrel’s weariness and nausée develop thematically. But a little at a time.

Theme is something the readers need to discern and interpret on their own. It should never be fed to them.

One tool you can use to help the reader do those things is symbolism: a concrete image that represents something abstract—an idea, a theme, a psychological concern, a cultural current, or the like. Ernest Hemingway infuses his stories with symbolism; I can’t recall a place in any of his stories where he explicitly reveals the theme in so many words. Interestingly, he denied any guilt in this line. But if you and I could deploy imagery the way Hemingway did, we’d all be living on our yachts and punctuating our writing stints with drinking and deep-sea fishing.

One of my authors, who has just begun to explore the finer points of writing fiction, wants to develop two symbols to present a long novel’s main theme. One—the sound of an ethnic musical instrument—was an afterthought. It leaps to the fore as the novel rises toward its climax, but because we’ve never heard of it before, it jars.

I suggested that, on rewrite, he should introduce the musical tradition’s sounds and sights early on, with at least a mention in the first chapter and then recurring appearances as the story grows. A few months later he came forth with a chapter, imbued with magical realism, in which the protagonist encounters the tradition as a young boy. From there the author builds the image into the narrative until it becomes thematically symbolic.

Theme is crucial to good fiction. Symbol is a tool you can use to point to theme. And to use either of them, show, don’t tell!

The Complete Writer: Dialogue

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[26]

Dialogue

Of late in my editorial role, I’ve been reading a lot of dialogue in manuscript. Some would-be famous novelists are better at it than others. Ditto some published novelists.

Recently two things have struck me about the products of people who are developing skill in writing conversation: they either get so baroque with the attributions as to become unintentionally silly (“Let’s go,” said Tom swiftly . . . or better yet, “Let’s go!” Tom ejaculated), or they go full throttle in the other direction with no attributions (“dialogue tags”) in page after page of back and forth. This, by the way, is called stichomythia: extended dialogue with no they saids.

Dialogue serves several purposes in fiction. It fills in backstory. It helps to characterize the story’s people. It slows down action. It may deliver the occasional surprise. Whenever you use dialogue, you should use it to accomplish something, not throw it in there because you think every work of fiction must have dialogue.

Dialogue does not exist in a vacuum.

People think things while they’re talking. If the scene is told from a single character’s point of view, the writer will share only that character’s train of thought. But everyone’s outwardly visible activities can be shown, allowing us to surmise what they might be thinking. People get up and move around. They sigh. They smile. They frown. They raise an eyebrow. They look puzzled or quizzical. They observe other speakers in the scene. They become momentarily distracted. They indulge an idiosyncrasy. You name it, they do it.

In narrating dialogue, then, describe the whole action, not just the motion of the mouths and the vocal cords.

Here’s a dialogue-heavy passage. Note the parts that are not dialogue but that complement or elucidate it:

Kay and Fallon walked back toward their camps. They were joined by Devey Mayr of Metet, a tough A’oan who, though Kaybrel thought he looked too young to sit a horse, had led his party of fifty men straight through Roksan’s main gate in the minutes after the barriers fell. Devey affected a little strut that made him attractive to women, and sometimes made other men wonder what he was trying to prove.

“So you think the pickings are pretty slim on the coast?” he asked Kay.

“I know they are,” Kay replied. “Well, actually—they say the people in the far south are better off. But about ten years ago Hef of Aber’—you remember him, Fal? He died at the battle of Pakta.”

“Vaguely,” Fal said.

Of course, Kay thought. Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time. “Hef and I crossed the Wammets and reached the coast about as far north as Bose. We damn near starved out there. Didn’t find many people—a few ruins poking out of old silt flats, nobody living in ’em. They don’t have much food, and truly, we didn’t see any decent stock as far as we went. We made it down into Galifone, to a place the locals called Hamun Bay. The ocean is something to see, but it’s not worth driving a whole army over a mountain range.”

“No farms?”

“A few. Not many. Doesn’t rain there much. Most of the seacoast is desert. We ended up having to live off the land most of the way—and believe me, there’s not enough to support twelve hundred men.”

Devey looked disappointed. “I’d like to see that ocean,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s almost worth the trip,” Kaybrel agreed. “But go there on your own. No point in taking a big party. Just go check it out.”

“Maybe next summer,” Devey said. “I’d have to get leave from Bose. And Lhored, I expect.”

“You’ve done your job,” said Fal. “They won’t mind.”

“Wonder if he’d let me and a couple of my guys run over there now. We could probably get ourselves back to A’o before first snowfall.”

Kay laughed. “I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

“Somebody’d have to take my men while we were gone. How’s about you, Fal?”

“Not likely!” Fallon countered. “I’ve got enough chuckleheads to ride herd on—I don’t need more trouble.”

Devey smiled and scratched absently at a half-healed rash on his arm.

“Wait till next summer,” Kaybrel said. “If I come into the field, I’ll take your men with mine.”

“What ‘if’? You planning to stay home next year?”

“Maybe.”

“We need you out here.”

“Well, I’m not so young any more, Devey. Three or four months in the bush gets a little tired, you know, after a while.”

Devey considered this for a moment but couldn’t let it rest. “You’re no older than the brez,” he remarked.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said. “Our mothers were the same age. We were both first-born.”

“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.

“Yes. But his time is coming to an end. Just seven more years.”

“Seven springs?”

“Six.”

“Long enough,” said Devey. “You must be forty-two, then?”

“Add a year or three,” Kaybrel suggested.

Fallon rarely contemplated the possibility that his friend was past the middle of his life. Kaybrel always struck him as vigorous, and Fallon thought of him as somehow near his own age. In truth, Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future. To Fallon and Devey, it still seemed a long time.

They passed in the direction of the A’oan campsites. A round, red-headed lad emerged from that crowd, waved, and strode over to Devey.

“Hey,” he said. Devey gave him a rough hug and a playful shove. “Duarto and Guel’ say you brought us a new chacho,” he said to Kay.

“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.

The remark that “Devey affected a little strut . . . ” is what literary journalist Tom Wolfe used to call a “lifestyle marker”: habits or personal accouterments that reveal, sometimes deliberately but often unconsciously, some cast of mind or statement about oneself.

Similarly, “that made him attractive to women” and “made other men wonder what he was trying to prove” are elements of description that serve to help characterize Devey. Dialogue, like description, lends itself to lifestyle markers. The way people speak and behave while they’re talking often says as much about them or about what they’re thinking as what they say explicitly.

Within the book’s context, Devey is an adventurer; Kay is a seasoned warrior who also has passed some time as a traveler and adventurer; Fallon is Kay’s follower, for whom Kay serves as a mentor. Both Fallon and Devey are younger men; Kay is old enough to have grown tired of war-making. These characteristics are introduced or developed in the passage of dialogue, which appears near the top of chapter 1.

Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said.

Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future.

Dialogue doesn’t stand on its own. Let it articulate with the rest of the story, and work in narrative and description to help accomplish that.

The Complete Writer: Writing Fiction *FREE READ*

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Chapter 25. Where Do Your
Characters Come From?

Athena springs full-fledged from the head of Zeus

Who are the people in your fiction? Where did they come from? Come to think of it, do you even know how you dreamed them up?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several tales of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard . . . whence did these people arise?

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write. He’s a wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Asia.

William the Conqueror and pals

Probably they spring from what I know of life in the medieval period and of the world-view of the people who inhabited that time.

That’s a fair amount: before I first engaged the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different the people were from us.

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider’s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring full-formed from the head of Zeus?

Kaybrel FireRider

Kaybrel FireRider, Kubna of Moor Lek

The Complete Writer: A Few Notes on Plot

The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Chapter 24. Notes on Plot

Plot is the structure of a piece of fiction. When you write nonfiction, you’re building something similar to the fiction story’s plot: an organized narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, whose fact-based rising action leads to a high point and falls off in a resolution. It is, in a word, your work’s organization. A fictional work has—or should have—much the same kind of structure.

In fiction, plot is driven by conflict. Any conflict: could be between two or more people, between a person (or persons) and an external force (Man vs. Nature!), between conflicting emotions within an individual . . . any number of things. But conflict there must be.

Conflict moves the rising action from the beginning of the story up through one, two, or even more difficulties or calamities (often called turning points or complications), until the story reaches its climax. At that point the action is resolved into a dénouement, sometimes called falling action, that leads to the story’s end.

So here’s a question: do you write down a plot outline and dutifully follow it, or do you juggle your story’s direction in your head?

And, as long as we’re posing questions, if you have a written outline, what format does it take?

Some people—many of them prominent writers—claim they have no set outline, and that a piece of fiction seems to take form on its own, as it’s imagined. Others—also prominent writers—insist they must have a formal, carefully written outline, which they follow from beginning to end. Until recently, I tended to hang with the latter group.

For the current fiction enterprise, though, I got in the habit of sketching out ideas for coming action in notes at the end of a chapter in progress or in a separate Word document. It helps for remembering little insights and bright ideas.

But it’s not very efficient.

Recently it struck me that one of those Word docs full of ideas and notes was beginning to resemble a plot outline. So…now I’m about ten chapters in to what probably will be a 25- to 30-chapter novel. The ten chapters in hand aren’t in order—there are gaps, and they represent several subplots.

Those gaps and uncertainties, I suspected, could be wrangled with notecards. This makes it possible to shuffle chapters around, to move them from one section of the line of action to another, and to add or delete items easily.

I ended up with something that I called a “timeline.” It’s not exactly a plot outline, at least not yet: at this point it’s just a rough chronological arrangement of imagined events. The events in the timeline are narrated in the chapters.

One stack of notecards represents parts of the timeline. Each card shows what chapters are related to that timeline—presumably indicating approximately where they should appear in the finished manuscript, if not in what order. A timeline notcard also lists the subplots that would play out in those chapters:

In another stack, each notecard is dedicated to a specific chapter.

Exactly how well this will work for any given writer remains to be seen — by the writer. If it interests you, try it and see if it helps you to organize your scenes, chapter, and plotline. At the least, it should make it possible to keep track of a plot whose complexity seems to be running amok. At the worst, I doubt if it can do much harm!

 

A new route to self-publishing? An inchoate idea

Okay, so we know that self-publishing on Amazon and waypoints is no big money-maker, at least not for most folks. We also know that some of us “publish” our squibs not because we want to get rich or become famous writers, but because we’d like to share our creative extrusions with the few people in the world who might care to read them. In thinking about this state of affairs, an inchoate idea comes to mind..

If you’re going to publish for free, why pretend that you’re publishing for a profit? Why not just…yes…publish for free?

Self-publishing begins to make sense when you think of it not as a potential money-maker but simply as a way to get stuff that is written for the fun of writing to people who read for the fun of reading. 

In a word, it’s not a business; it is a hobby.

With that thought in mind — particularly where a novel-in-progress is concerned — how would this work? How would you get your scribblings to the greatest number of interested readers at the least cost?

Here’s a strategy that comes to mind. I would love to know what readers think of this scheme and what you would add, subtract, multiply, or divide.

§

• First, write the magnum opus. You could either write and polish the entire novel, or you could write a few chapters and publish them serially as you go, much as, say, Charles Dickens wrote his novels. Serial publication was popular in the 19th century and even all the way through the middle of the 20th century. I can remember following stories in The Saturday Evening Post…and for heaven’s sake, the digital publishing universe invites serialization. It’s surprising that we don’t see serialization again. Not in the sense of a series of genre novels, but as publication of a single work in regularly appearing segments.

Post teasers on Facebook. These would be scenes or descriptive passages or bits of dialogue that leave the reader wanting (you hope!) to read more. Link from there to your website, where an entire serial might be posted.

• Post teasers at Amazon, for free, inviting people to come to the website for more. Here is how you would do this:

Take one or more of your serials (enough to make some sense and to intrigue the reader), put them together into one manuscript, and format the thing as a short e-book. This might be, say, 5,000 to 10,000 words. Make it clear in there that this is part of a larger work, and if they want to read the rest of the story, they should come to your website where they can follow it, for free, or download a free copy of the whole noveloid.

Publish this squib — with the plug for other parts of it included in the bookoid — through Amazon’s KDB program and set the price as $0.00. That is, publish it for free. Doing so will cause a few readers at Amazon to notice and read the book, and they will notice that you are publishing more serials at your website: free.

Back at your website, serialize the story, for free, in the form of blog posts. (A good WordPress template will allow you to create website a with a static front page, pages to advertise your products, and a blog — that is what you are reading now, at this P&S Press site.

You don’t have to buy a domain name if you make the blog name a subdomain. So this would allow you to have a single website, in your name or in your business’s name, with a series of subdomains bearing your separate novels’ names. This is very easy.

When you finally complete a seralized book, offer it — in digital format only — for sale at Amazon and/or on the site. You can do this easily, for free, if the book does not have a lot of graphic content. Any novel will upload handsomely to Amazon’s Kindle format.

This is the only part of the process that should cost you anything: you might want to have it copyedited or at least proofread. If you’re an accomplished, literate writer with experience in publishing, you may find that unnecessary, though most people are helped by another set of eyes to read the copy.

If you want to ask money for it, when it goes on Amazon, offer it for what you’re charging at the website…or maybe even more. At your Website, you can offer it in ePub format, which can be read on practically any device, or in PDF. Either of these formats can be prepared for free. You can make an ePub book in Scrivener, and any Mac or PC will make a very fine PDF, which you can “lock” to keep it from being copied.

But if you felt you just must make some money on it, once you built a decent readership, you could sell advertising within the book, in the same way magazines, newspapers, and websites sell ad space. Indeed, nineteenth-century fictional works did carry advertising. Writing a genre novel? Suggest to other scribblers in your genre that they buy ad space in your book or on your website. Doesn’t cost you anything, so even a few pennies is pure profit for you.

Electronic publishing is essentially free. The only part of the process of bringing finished copy to the reader that should cost you any money is preparing printed, hard-copy books. Otherwise, plain-vanilla text without a lot of jpegs, tables, and graphs is so simple to convert to digital format you need not pay anyone to do it for you.

So. Publishing is free. What that means is that if you don’t care whether you make any money on your golden words — if you write and distribute your content as a kind of hobby — there is  no reason at all to pay to have it published. No reason to produce it as a bound book in hard copy. No reason to distribute it in any other way than as a freebie give-away.

Why not?

Progress Being Made

As you’ll recall, if you visit here now and again, awhile back my creative schooner ran aground on the shoals of ennui. I decided to try a new tack: write the backstory for a character that kept pushing herself to the forefront of the imaginative stage.

This scheme is working well, to my surprise. So well, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if the story is really about Ella, second-in-command to the Kaïna Rysha’s overseer, and not at all about her highness, Rysha Delamona, described by said overseer in a moment of impatience as ruler of “This, That, and the Other, not to Exclude the Whole Fucking Universe.”

I had conceived of this tale as an “Upstairs” story, one that would follow the exploits of an imperial aristocracy challenged not only by its own divisive intrigues but by the appearance of a mysterious alien entity.

But maybe in fact it’s a “Downstairs” story, following the exploits of a hard-bitten interstellar working and criminal class struggling to survive in the context of an aggressive imperial culture. Maybe the interesting stuff has little to do with the privileged, the wealthy, and the hereditary elite.

So far, we have about 6800 words, five chapteroids of copy that consist largely of flashbacks occurring while Ella is having a spate of insomnia. The next scene is clear in its author’s mind and likely to roll right along.

If this keeps on, I’ll end up with a whole story about Ella, Dorin, and the “Downstairs” crew, probably with rather little characterization or story-telling about the elite. That’s why I think maybe it’s a whole different story than the one originally envisioned.

At this rate, she was never going to get to sleep. Leaving the light off – none was needed, after all, nor did she want to wake anyone – she slipped out from under the covers, pulled on a robe, and padded barefoot down the cool stone hallway to the side entry at the far end of the women’s quarters. The door was alarmed, but she had a key and a code, which she used to let herself outside.

Zaitaf [Varnis’s largest moon] cast her argentine glow across the landscape that spread out before Ella’s restless gaze. What a thing, she reflected. Who would have imagined she would ever see such a place, pastoral and only half-peopled, much less live in it? Monochromatic beneath the moon’s platinum mantle, the broad pastures, the sturdy manor house – conservative but large and commanding – the gardens, the domesticated woods, and off in the distance the low mountains from which Skyhill took its name glowed like a painting limned in ebony ink on silver. Lovely by daylight, this evening it took her breath away. It wanted to fill her with love for the place. But it also stole other things away from her: her self, her loves, her past.

She gazed up at Zaitaf and wondered which of those gray patches on its face was Ethra. Could a person see Ethra at all without a magnifying lens? And . . . how was it possible that she’d been here almost 30 years? That she’d spent almost ten on Zaitaf?

Djitti had died a couple years after Ella was brought to Skyhill, recruited as Dorin’s second in overseeing the estate’s staff. Her daughter, now the Kaïna, was ten at the time. Not quite twenty when her father was assassinated. Five years Kaïna now, Rysha was.

How did all that happen between yesterday and today?

Bhotil [overseer on Ethra, the colony on Zaitaf] would be in his 90s now, if he’d lived. He had been good to her, helped her work her way up from the resort’s laundry to dispatching and then to supervising staff. She missed him.

Every now and again she missed Bhotil. Now and again. But she missed Vighdi—her lover, her boss—every day.

Vighdi, shining bright in the sky. What was she doing now? Was she still on Zaitaf? Hell, was she even still living at all? Ella had no way of knowing, no way of finding out.

“Madame.”

She jumped, startled out of her reverie. At the door, watching her with a half-smile, stood Dorin [overseer for the Kaïna’s estate, and Ella’s immediate boss].

“It’s after curfew. What are you doing out here?”

“Not much,” she said. “Just having a hard time getting to sleep. You, too?”

“Well, no. But opening the door sets off an alarm on my desk.”

“Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I thought my key would open it without waking you.”

“Well – at least it doesn’t wake the dead an all their kindred.”

“Can’t win, hm?”

“Never.”

He stepped outside onto the landing with her and stood gazing at the silver-plated landscape.

“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” he remarked.

“Oh, my, yes.”

Dorin stood quietly, his attention taken by the glowing scene. The moonlight picked up the silver in his hair and, to Ella’s eye, made him part of the show.

“So,” he said after a moment or two, “what’s keeping you awake tonight, Ella? Something on your mind?”

Ah. The talk-to-me gambit. She’d had the same steward’s training: social work and counseling. Maybe it was unkind of her, though, to suspect a “gambit.” Overseer, he was, but he’d also been a good enough friend to her.

She shrugged. “I dunno. Different things, I guess.”

He was quiet for a moment. The wait-’em-out gambit. She gave in. “The Darl business, I suppose. It’s just…a little much.”

“Upset you to see him suffering like that?”

“I suppose, yeah.” He waited some more. “No,” she added. “It’s not anything we haven’t all been through.”

“Most of us,” he agreed.

“When you think about it…well, hell. Dorin. You and I worked like animals to get where we are. This guy comes along, this guy, and he just drops out of the cooker into the dormitory at Skyhill? I mean…how does that happen?”

A dubious glance. “When did you start expecting life to be fair?” He actually sounded a little surprised. And yes. It probably was…out of character. The man could spot bullshit a mile away.

“Not recently,” she admitted. He smiled distantly, gazing at the silvered landscape. At length she spoke into his silence. “It’s just that it annoys me. This is Bintje’s doing. If she hadn’t gotten herself knocked up, we wouldn’t have to be dealing with a new slave, and the paperwork and the damn blacksuits in our faces and the training and the headaches that go with someone fresh out of the cooker [a particularly excruciating type of punishment marking the transition between conviction for a crime and a lifetime of servitude].”

“Well. It’s not Bintje’s fault she got pregnant. She had the shot. You saw her get it. And you know the stuff doesn’t work a hundred percent of the time.”

“Okay, so Bintje brings home a belly, and the mistress decides…what? She’s going to buy a doctor for her? Why? The place is crawling with perfectly fine midwives.”

Why, indeed?

I have no idea. Who knows what mysteries lurk in the hearts of absolute rulers?

“Free” Writing Workshop Pays for Itself!

Check out the guy's books!

Check out the guy’s books!

Okay, so the fiscal truth is…what I paid to listen to Mr. Sam Sykes hold forth in yesterday’s writing workshop was the cost of a quarter-tank of gasoline (about five bucks, I’d guess) and four and a half hours of my time (two of them spent driving to and from the venue). That would come to about $275 worth of time and gasoline.

He talked about developing a plot line, and in the course of doing so presented a visualization of a plot’s forward momentum that I had not heard before. It was good: essentially what he said is that the old model of rising action, climax, and falling action is only one of several ways to look at a fictional work’s architectonics. He suggested one that resembles a graph showing short bursts of rising tension topped by decisions that lead to change, causing changes in circumstances that lead to new rising tension, and so on.

I like this way of visualizing what happens among characters in a work of fiction. And better yet, in passing he remarked that one need not and probably should not map out a plot line to follow religiously. And right there, I think, he solved the problem of why moving forward with the Varnis story has become such a PITA.

The Fire-Rider books got a few rave reviews, but very few. Indeed, they elicited almost no response from Amazon’s canny readers…I would like to imagine because where marketing is concerned, I share Bartleby’s sentiments (“I would prefer not to”), and so few canny readers have found the damn things. But more probably, no one has felt moved to write any comments.

Meditating upon this state of affairs, I speculated that the problem may be that I did not construct a cast-in-plaster plotline for Fire-Rider. Maybe it was too organic. After all, I just started writing and let the characters do their thing. I rather like the result, but maybe nobody else does. Maybe readers expect a classic plotline, not a soap opera.

But amazingly, Sykes remarked that a good genre novel may be a soap opera.

There’s also the problem that my writing doesn’t fit into any genre format, but rather floats between literary fiction and genre writing. But that’s another tale.

When he said these things, I thought Oh God! That’s it! Get rid of the stultifying plotline and just let the characters live!

Since leaving his precincts I haven’t had a minute to return to the Fire-Rider story. But I will. In fact, as soon as I finish writing this squib and posting it all over Heaven and Hell, I will return to the magnum opus at hand. Only this time, the characters — not some arbitrary design — will drive the action.

Creative Process as Wrestling Match

Alien City © SpinningAngelThis new noveloid, which I thought would fly on the wings of a lark, has turned into something out of WrestleMania. Lordie! I cannot BELIEVE how difficult the traveling is.

As I mentioned awhile back, on a whim I decided to try writing with a fountain pen and…you know, that flat stuff…paper? Interestingly, the break from the computer does help speed things along a bit. No Spider Solitaire link, no Bookworm link, no Mah Jongg link, no Washington Post Outspell link, no New Yorker cover jigsaw puzzles, no Google News link, no Huffington Post link, no CNN link, no Fox News link, no SciNews.com link, no Smithsonian link, no Astronomy Picture of the Day link, no…none of that stuff: the attention span extends over a slightly longer period.

Not much longer, but enough longer to be helpful. But still, I’m struggling to get the characters, the setting, and the action down on paper.

After some reflection, it occurred to me that the problem is lack of visualization. The setting is not clearly imagined: it’s fuzzy and lacks detail. The characters are ur-characters: I kind of know these people, but some of them are only passing acquaintances and even those at the center of the story have never settled in as my bosom buddies. The action is imagined, the series of crises and the main character’s “journey” is there, but these two are not well envisioned.

And that surprises me.

I like to build imaginary worlds. My fantasy life is full of them — hence, Fire-Rider. The specific imaginary world under construction just now has been around for a long time. When I first dreamed up the characters and the premise, I was about 10 or 12 years old. Off and on over the years, I’ve concocted stories involving these characters. Since I’m now in my early 70s, you can figure for yourself about how many years are involved.

So, sitting down to write this tale, I figured I knew the time, the place, and the people well. Yes. I knew the place like I know my neighborhood. The people like I know my friends and family. The time, in elaborate completeness.

Well, no. When I start to write about thus-and-such a venue, suddenly I realize I don’t know what this damn place looks like. Not at all.  When I think about the social customs of this or that set of characters, I realize they’re really not very detailed or convincing.

To complicate matters, new characters quietly pop to life. Yesterday, one Eylla came on the scene, previously unimagined and so, undeveloped. And characters who have been around for a long time turn out to have unsuspected whims and traits — one has a dual allegiance; another is secretly in love.

All this vagueness, all this malleability is slowing things way down. I’m having to stop and picture what does this person look like? what does that place look like? what explains the behavior of that group of people? how did this situation come to be? when did that series of events begin, and why? And that stuff is time-consuming.

Weird.

How can you dream up a whole empire of other worlds and a dozen characters and still not know what they look like?

Images: Depositphotos,
Alien city: © algolonline
Water planet: © artcasta
Alien worlds in space: © mozzyb
Snowy planet: © algolonline

The Five Worst Novice Writing Clichés

Recently I was asked to opine upon the five worst writing clichés that I encounter in reading and editing.

It’s a big question: the clichés go on and on. How many ways, in genre writing, can you tell the same story without beginning to sound a little stale? In nonfiction, most writers emit little that is new and much that is familiar. And there’s the question of whether the inquiring mind means cliché on the line level, or cliché on the structural or plot level.

On the line level?

1. I would say that “in today’s modern society” takes the proverbial cake. Note how you can’t even describe it without invoking yet another cliché.

“In today’s modern society” is a space-filling freshman-compism. However, just the other day I saw it used in an academic paper by someone who had attained the Ph.D. and was emitting what one might expect to be new and fresh knowledge. Well. One might expect it until one realized the mind behind the paper thinks in cliché.

On the structural or plot level?

2. Deus ex machina has got to be one of the worst offenders. The last three novels I’ve read have placed their heroes in terrifying predicaments, only to rescue them with the proverbial cavalry. When you design a standard plot, as you know, the plot line rises through several crises or turning points, in which the characters become tangled in some sort of conflict. The thing is, the protagonist needs to get herself out of the predicament on her own. She or he cannot be rescued by a merciful god, saved in the nick of time by the police, relieved when some pursuer is struck by lightning. How many times can God drop down out of heaven to rescue people, anyway?

3. Secretly, bad guys and bad girls are wannabe nice folks, eh? The whore (or thug) with a heart of gold is a sweet thought, but alas, another cliché, sort of like cute kittens, puppies, and baby armadillos on Facebook.

4. Endless sagas that go on and on through novel after novel. I’m guilty of this myself. Deep in the bowels of my computer is the plot outline of yet another Fire-Rider story. How much can one say about these folks’ adventures, anyway? Occasionally you’ll hit it big with a character that readers love, such as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. That’s the time to keep writing until the world runs out of paper and bandwidth. But for most genre novels that appear on Amazon, a series is just an excuse to keep turning out the same story over and over. It becomes its own cliché.

5. Black (Native American, Latino, Asian, immigrant, whatEVER) characters who save the day through their pure angelic virtue and unassailable wisdom. People who are members of ethnic groups other than your own are people, just like you. They are not different, at base, from other human beings. Each of us is an amalgam of the good, the bad; the wise, the foolish. To deny this is to flatten the character — to show the character as more than human is to show him as less than human. And to my mind, it patronizes. Give your characters equal-opportunity humanity. Please.

What are your “favorite” clichés?

Images: DepositPhotos
Seen on TV: © valentint
Deus Ex Machina: © yellow2j
Kitten: © simply
To Be Continued: © iqoncept
Stereotype: © Rawpixel