Tag Archives: writing

I Rock at the Shock: Sex and Storytelling


Sex—passionate, hot. I know this because it’s burned me before. I’ve been in many a passionate, heated debate about it over the years. Sex and storytelling—do they belong together? Well let’s dive in; I haven’t been burned by the subject in a good two weeks. I’m overdue.

This recent debate was with an indie author who has been teaching me a lot about indie publishing…primarily respect and greater understanding. This writer was talking about a sex scene she intended to put into a book. I made the mistake of saying, “Be sure it belongs in the story.” Oh my, that did it!

Now, I will confess that I got something of a reputation in my writer’s groups over the years past as a prude. I often attacked sex scenes vehemently. What they didn’t know is that I love a good sex scene. Make it dark and problematic, and I love it all the more. But writers’ groups are often a mix of talent of beginning, intermediate, and, if you’re lucky, advanced writers come together to experiment and learn. For me, this translated into most manuscript sex scenes I saw were not good. The reason they weren’t good was because they were put in for the wrong reason. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer defend a sex scene by saying, “but sex sells!”

Good writing and storytelling sell better. So good sex in books needs to be good storytelling as well. The reason I like dark and problematic sex scenes is all tied up in the word problematic. Problems generate story. Generally, the manuscript sex scenes I saw didn’t.

Another argument I’ve heard from many writers is  “but it’s my story.” True, it is your story, and I’ve heard this defense in one form or another for years. I may have even said it early on. Today I answer that with this retort: yes, but it’s my money and my time you want from me and all of your potential readers. Stories that you write for yourself and without consideration for a reader are what I call high-risk manuscripts. These manuscripts run the risk of being more therapy than story. Once upon a time, we had a gal  join our writer’s group and waltz in proclaiming proudly that she had a 10,000 page manuscript. Someone in the group piped up, “you mean 10,000 words, right?” Nope. She didn’t. The group actually groaned (and not the good fun kind of groan). She was something of a traumatized individual, and she was quite obviously to me (though not to herself) working her issues out in her stories.

First, let me say, that’s great. If you can save on counseling sessions by writing 10,000 pages, go forth and do—but, don’t torture me with it. Therapy is not the same thing as viable commercial storytelling. You have an obligation as a writer who joins a writers group or gives your manuscript to a friend or sends one in to a publisher to consider the reader.

You remember the reader, yes? The person you want to come up with money to pay for your story? Once you decide to pass on your story, it is no longer yours. If you are a writer, you’ve heard people say that, but think about it for a moment. A story in a reader’s hands is not yours. Your book has not been shrink-wrapped with a free copy of the author included in every sale. What I mean by this is that you do not get to dictate a relationship for your reader to your work. You can only cajole a reader’s cooperation and enjoyment of your book through your skill. Once it passes on, the reader makes the rules for relating to your book. And you have a lot competing with your book when it is open in your reader’s hands in this hectic world.

Back to the sex (because well, we always want to come back to that, right?). The next argument raised in the discussion was realism: “Sex is part of everyone’s life in some fashion or another. Why can’t characters just have sex? You wouldn’t throw out a bar scene just because it was a bar scene.” She almost got me on this one because it is two different points.

First, sex thrown in for real life’s sake: if it furthers your character development, promotes plot, or establishes a point in your story, then do so. Maybe a middle aged housewife is having her regular Friday night sex and just doesn’t feel it anymore. That ennui is now part of where the story is going. Then average ordinary everyday sex is appropriate.

Second, for a moment, I thought maybe she was right about the bar, maybe I’m just hard on sex scenes…then I realized, what am I saying? Am I going soft in the head? Of course I’d be down on a bar scene that didn’t further the goals or address the needs of a story. In fact, I’d just dealt with exactly that question in my own writing. I had a tavern across the street from an inn where my protagonist was hiding, then the antagonist gets close but is drawn off to the tavern at the last minute. As one of the my writer’s group so succinctly put it: “Squirrel!”

So I axed that tavern and used the tavern I’d already mentioned in the inn, and when the antagonist goes into it, he is getting closer to the protagonist, not farther. I had an extra unneeded bar in my story, and I axed it. Although I’m focusing on the sex question here,  this advice is true for any scene or element. They all have to pull their weight in your story.

But she was right about one thing, I probably pay more attention to sex scenes, but I have a reason. Sex is actually a very powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It resonates in some way with us all. It annoys me and throws me out of the story to see sex turned into something light and unimportant when in fact, it should be a story driver. Sex. Money. Power—these three things drive the world. Scandals in the real world always revolve around one or more of these three issues. So sex is one of your big guns.

So what do you do? Do you never write a sex scene? Of course not. Here is a bell weather test to try. Ask yourself then a trusted reader this question: How would the story change without the sex scene? If you don’t have a good clear strong story-driven answer, then maybe it doesn’t belong. And if you do have a clear reason, set it up right. Take your time. Remember that tool in your writer’s toolbox called foreshadowing. Don’t bring that big gun out (in either figurative sense) until the time is right, until you’ve covered a good deal of story real estate with groundwork and building sexual tension. Make me want the culmination, the consummation of reader and story, for a long time. Make me want it as much as or maybe even more than the characters do. Foreplay, my dear writers, it’s as important in writing about sex as it is in sex itself.

Title is from a W. H. Auden poem. Picture is available at AliExpress.


The Way Forward is Sometimes the Way Back: Escaping the Labyrinth

The wind is a cat:
Angry, it hisses through the trees.
Soft, it brushes against the house
Like a friendly cat rubs against one’s knees.

The wind is a cat:
Wandering, it meanders about
Vicious, its claws rake the shingles
Like a cat’s nails scratch the carpeted floor.

The wind is a cat:
Chill, it bites with tiny, sharp teeth
Gentle, it softly tickles one’s skin
Like a cat’s whiskers may tickle bare feet.

~Carolyn Bond

Wind is a cat2

I liked this poem when I read it in eleventh grade. It fired up my imagination, so since I was on the high school lit magazine, I volunteered to do the artwork for it.  Back then, as now, I had the perfect personality for editing and line art: I was an uptight perfectionist.

Deadlines were approaching so I stayed after school. I was working in the art room with a true artist, which even then I knew I was not.  I was an illustrator, but James, he was the real thing.  As I drew my stylized picture of a cat, I screwed up…something I did a lot with my illustration.  After muttering a few mild curses, I was only sixteen after all, I asked James to pass me the whiteout.  This was for repro on a Xerox machine.  The whiteout wouldn’t register.  James picked up the little bottle, but instead of handing it to me, he put it in his pocket.

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“But I made a mistake, I need it!” I protested.

“No, you don’t,” he told me.  “It’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity. Embrace it.  Turn it into part of your picture.”

I was not at all happy about that, but the deadline was looming.  I altered my plan and did just what he said; I incorporated it into the drawing.  I did it well enough, that I cannot tell you today where that mistake was.  It is no longer a mistake, it is art.

It was a lesson I picked up readily for my artwork and used as I minored in art in college.  But I wasn’t clever enough to apply it more broadly to my other art—writing. Not until I met Teresa Edgerton.

We used to take long walks and talk about the craft of writing.  At one point, I became stuck in my writing.  I could not find may way out of the labyrinth of plot I’d constructed for my characters.  She told me something similar to what James had told me:  Look back at your work.  What is there that you can use for your needs now?  As with James, I had my doubts, but I also had nothing to lose.  So I combed over my story and found just what she had said I would.  The seeds of something I’d not even known I’d planted were now grown enough for me to use to climb out of my maze.

The advice from James and Teresa is likely the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about my artistic endeavours.  I’ve used it over and over again.  I’ll share some examples.

First an introduction to a few characters from In a Mortal Shadow:  Falion is our hero trying to rescue the damsel in distress, Venae, a magic-wielding character.  Karill is his nemesis in hot pursuit.

My first example is about using using location you have already set up. Karill has nearly caught up with Falion at an inn.  Just as he’s about to go in, the tavern across the way has a loud disturbance. Karill goes to investigate that instead.  It was a distraction, both in plot, but worse, for the reader.  I think one of my writer’s group folk summed it up best in this comment at the point where Karill goes clambering off to the tavern over yonder: “Squirrel!”

She was so right.  I had to fix it.  I realized that the inn also had a tavern, which I’d mentioned already.  So this time, Karill goes to the innkeepress, who is in her tavern, and is distracted there long enough for our hero to get away.  The change may seem inconsequential, but the result was major. Instead of being clearly a red herring that took Karill away from Falion, this tavern visit takes him closer.  Falion nearly runs into him.  Tension is built where as before, it was dissipated…perhaps even comically so.

In this second example, I looked to what I had already established as part of a character’s talents to recycle that talent in a new way to perform a new action. Falion and Venae need to flee the city of Cete Kellen.  Originally, I made up new magic for her to walk through walls.  It never sat right with me.  It hadn’t tested well with beta readers, either.  So here I was, stuck in a city on lockdown, and I had no idea how to get out—until I remembered a magic skill I had used earlier.  Falion, through a curse, is immune to magic directed against him.  But magic can be used around him. For instance, if you were to stop the air moving about his hand perfectly, he would not be able to move it any more than he might if his hand were encased in stone.  If she can do that, then she can stop the air from moving under his feet, and he can stand on it.  Falion escapes the city by walking off the city wall.

In my third example, I found an existing character ready to take up a new role. Sharp started out a walk-on character.  I needed someone to guide Falion and Venae across the border. I was about to create a new character when I heard Teresa’s and James’s voices in my head. I looked around, and there he was, sitting in the corner, whittling away on a stick and whistling, waiting for me to discover what, apparently, he already knew.  He wasn’t some wandering merchant after all, he was much more.  Merchant was just his cover.  Good cover—it worked on me for years!

So when you are stuck.  Take time to review your work keeping your problem foremost in your mind.  Get a friend or beta reader to go over it if you can.  New perspectives can widen your view of your own work. You two can talk it through, stir up the story, which has been too staid in your mind. See what seeds are growing back where you dropped them two chapters ago, or five, or ten.  Not only can it get you out of the Labrinth right now, but it makes your story look richer and more put together.  Those incidental seeds you cast out have suddenly turn into foreshadowing. Now don’t you look clever!   And all you had to do was remember:

Sometimes the way forward is the way back.

And Lo! And There Shall Come…An Ending!

By Rosemary Edghill

NY Times bestselling author, Rosemary Edghill shares her knowledge and her wit in one of her “Dear Author” commentaries.  I’m been a fan of her “Dear Author” posts on Facebook and feel very lucky to share the laughter and insight this one brought me.

Screen shot 2015-02-15 at 10.05.32 AMThis is the story of Childeric, called The Shatterer, Last Emperor of the Eidolon Empire. He swashbuckled through a swordly and sorcerous universe…in four novels written by A. E. Phillips during the fantasy revival of the late 1960s. This is the story of Arcadia Stanton McCauley, who spent a couple of summers being A. E. Phillips and got on with her life…until her life was over. Only it wasn’t. Not quite. Because Cady McCauley died one night on an LA freeway. But she woke up in the Eidolon Empire….

Available on Amazon

Dear Author:

You and I should talk.  I know you’ve been sending stories in to that online magazine regularly—sometimes five or six a month!—and I’ve been rejecting them (with a form letter, not even a personalized reply), just as regularly.  But you keep trying, no matter how many rejections you get.  I think that’s great.

I just wish you’d learn how to write.

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Oh, don’t get me wrong: your grammar’s fine, your spelling’s good, and your sentence structure is usually adequate.  But you see, the magazine only buys STORIES, and you aren’t sending me stories.  You’re sending me ideas—some could only be handled properly (by “properly” I mean: “in a way that does not make me want to gouge my eyes out and run screaming through the streets of Poughkeepsie”) at novel length.  Some are clichés (and you don’t know that because you have very little exposure to the last hundred years of written science fiction and fantasy) that you haven’t found a fresh spin on.  (And do not get me started on your endless thirst to do grim’n’gritty remixes of Disney cartoons: recursive much?)  The worst of the lot—the stuff that makes me beweep deaf heaven and turn to drink—are the ones that have a wonderful set-up, an exciting idea, a great set of characters…

And stop.  In the middle.  Without a resolution.

Dear Author, I know your mentors and moral exemplars said that you get points for showing up, that half of life is showing up, and so on.  NEWS FLASH: THEY LIED.  You get ZIP for showing up (as with all of these half-baked “flash fictions”).  You get the brass cupcake for SEEING IT THROUGH.  Another lie the mentors tell?  “Leave something to your reader’s imagination.”  No, no, no, no, NO!  Especially when what you, with a fey and elfin delicacy, want to leave to your reader’s imagination is the ENDING.  (Yes, dear Author, I am capslocking in a paroxysm of anguish.  I like you, I really do.  And I want you to stop shooting yourself in the foot.)  Trust me, readers have plenty of imagination.  They’ll find something to do with it when they read your story.  But they aren’t signing on for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience, and when I review your submission, neither am I.

I know you watch a lot of television.  (So do I: stop trying to slip re-written Supernatural fanfic past me, because filing the serial numbers off your fanfic is a whole ‘nother rant.)  Television is a five-act structure in 42 minutes: Freytag’s Pyramid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure).  Five-act structure is long-form structure: if you model your narrative on the storytelling structure you see on television (or in the movies) you are going to be writing a novel.  That’s fine, but don’t send it to me: the magazine publishes short stories.  And a short story has a three act structure.

Dear Author, you rarely send me the second act, let alone the third.  I’m starting to suspect you have no idea what happens in the third act.  You need to figure that out before you submit your story, and it needs to be on the page.

Take, as an illustrative example of the thing done right, C. L. Moore’s masterwork, “Vintage Season”.  In Act One (the set-up), we establish that the time is now, the place is here, the narrator is Oliver Wilson, and some very odd people are renting Oliver’s house.  (Dear Author, you may think Act One is for “Setting The Scene”.  Nope, sorry.  You get a paragraph—at most—to do that, and it’s PART of Act One.)

In Act Two (the reveal), we discover two things: 1. The odd people are Time Tourists.  2. The Time Tourists visit the most perfect seasons in Earth’s history, after which they leave.  And this is where (in your own stories, dear Author) you usually stop.  Protip: this is not (yet) a (finished) story.  This is a set-up for a finale that you do not deliver.  Because in Act Three (the blow-off) of “Vintage Season” we find out that the perfect seasons—the vintage seasons of the title—come just before terrible disasters, which the Time Tourists are aware of and do nothing to prevent.

If you’ve managed to get an equivalent part of Act Three into your story, bravo! dear Author.  But your story still isn’t over.  (This is where I send you the form letter saying your story “lacks sufficient closure”, BTW.)  Because here’s the rest of Act Three:  Oliver, in possession of all this information, writes it down in a document meant to serve as a warning to others: the Time Tourists are easily recognizable, and their presence is a warning of disaster.  Unfortunately, his message is destroyed (along with Oliver) in the very disaster to which the vintage season was the prelude.

And that, boys and girls, is how you end a story.  Something happens.  We find out what it is.  We then see its consequences.  And seeing what your set-up resolves as is really important to the reader.  Does the princess marry the goatherd?  Does the spy complete his mission?  Do the aliens destroy Earth?  Don’t leave us in suspense!  “So what happened then?” is the eternal cry of every audience ever.  And we would like to know.  Really we would.  All of us.  You can come up with the prettiest and most amazing situation ever limned in English prose, and it is just going to lie there like a dead flounder unless you do something with it.  By the conclusion of your work, its reader should be able to answer the following questions: 1. Who is the protagonist?  2. What do they accomplish?  3. Why do they do it?  4. What are the consequences of their actions?

Dear Author, if, based solely on the information you provide in the text, that would be impossible for the reader, do another draft.  Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  No matter what Meatloaf may say, two out of three is bad.

Rosemary Edghill is the keeper of the Eddystone Light, corny as Kansas in August, normal as blueberry pie, and only a paper moon.  She was found floating down the Amazon in a hatbox, and, because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, she became a creature of the night (black, terrible).  She began her professional career working as a time-traveling vampire killer and has never looked back.  She’s also a New York Times Bestselling Writer and hangs out on Facebook a lot. Her webpage is: http://www.rosemaryedghill.com/ and there is not now nor ever was an E in the middle of her last name.

A Moment of Quiet Inspiration

By Jo Zebedee

I had the fortune of “meeting” Jo through Tickety Boo Press (TBP).  I felt an affinity for her immediately since we are about the same age and have been writing genre fiction since we were children.  I’ve heard good things through the grapevine about her first novel with TBP.  Jo and I are cross-pollinating our Web sites this month, so stop by her site and read That’s What Editors Are For.

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Abendau’s Child is available for preorder on Tickety Boo Press.

I’m just starting to get asked interesting questions about being a writer. I’ve had the “Oh, I hope you aren’t intending to put me in your novel” (nope, and even if I did by page three you’d have changed sex, creed, colour, and become an alien life-form, given my thinking processes), the “That sounds exciting” (it’s really not), and the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?”

That one’s a pig to answer. Partly because I write quite diverse things: I’ve had people with removable souls in their arms; tricksy AIs; aliens invading Belfast; a sexy love affair on Callisto (not seen the light of day, that one); a huge space opera world. Somehow, they’ve all resided in my head and popped out. I worry I have a great pit at the back of my mind where I should have some useful knowledge. Like algebra.

However, since I hope to write lots, lots more (just need to work out the ‘time/income-eating’ thing), I thought it was about time I answered that question and figured out what sort of themes drive me. It seems like what a Proper Writer should do.

My first world came  into being  in the mid-eighties when I was sixteen. It’s changed a lot since then but, in essence, it is that world. Some of the big sci-fi influences on it are clear: Blake’s 7 was my favourite show in the seventies (but I loved the quirky, twisted character of course, so Avon got a nod in the main character’s name), and a certain amount of Servalan’s style transferred to my Empress, although my so-and-so’s much nastier.

So, too, are the Star Wars elements—psi powers are important in my trilogy (although they lack the mysticism of the Force and are Properly Scientific), and the  level of technology in Abendau is properly equatable to Star Wars, although I have no droids or aliens.

Dune had a later influence when I was shaping my central planet, and it turned out to be a desert world—one without giant worms and spice, albeit, and with its own history and culture, but I’d still give a sage nod if anyone wants to mention Dune as an influence (and there could be much worse influences).

But it isn’t just this mish-mash of story influences that became uniquely Abendau, my sense of place and my background are central to the things that inspire me.  Working in a medieval castle near Belfast had its own inspiration—my torture chambers are housed in an ancient part of a futuristic palace, for instance.

What’s harder to work out is where the themes that I now recognise after writing several books come from. Themes around edge of madness come up a lot—people struggling on that edge, hiding it under normal lives; people where madness is an ill-defined but deep-seated part of who they are. I have no deep hidden secrets in that arena, no reason to explore it. Perhaps it is simply that the conflict it creates in a character is so central, close to their core, that I find it fascinating.

Perhaps some of my inspiration is rooted in the needs of a sixteen year old girl.  Kare is a protector, a complex person with a core that is untouchable. A person with more demons than would fit in the average crypt. When I found out about existentialism as a concept, it rooted in him.  Kare became a person who followed his own path, living by his own morals, having been left to find them for himself. He makes decisions based on personal beliefs, rather than something religious or spiritual. Thus I found inspiration in a philosophy, perhaps, or just one of those alchemical moments of writing where the missing conundrum reveals itself. That’s how elusive inspiration is; a narrow coil of visuals, beliefs, knowledge, memories, and ideals needing to be unwound and dissected. I’m not sure I’m able to do that for myself—I’m not sure anyone is.

Which is where I was when it occurred to me around a year or two ago that I’d have to keep getting new ideas. That worried me. I sat with a notebook with the words “What if…?” written in bold and tried to come up with scenarios. I think I managed one. The wall of panic was considerable—I wanted to write, I was getting better at it, but the ideas well was empty.

Since then, I’ve realised a blank piece of paper and some forced words are not where I gain inspiration. I find flash fiction useful, especially when inspired by something visual. Three of my novels have come from a 75- or 300-word piece.

“What if?” may not work for me on the harsh white page, but ask it out in the magic of some primal forest or by the roar of the sea  and results are a lot different.   Last summer, on my holidays—no writing, or thinking about writing, of course—I looked around the woodland up into some trees and knew there was a story waiting in that forest. That new little baby book is about 20,000 words now, and whatever is in those woods wants into my character’s  head.  And now we’re at that edge between the normal and unbalanced again.

I’m not sure any of this helps another writer. Inspiration is so hard to explain, that moment of magic where you realise you have a story. I think it’s an individual thing that comes with time, when you realise what sparks your imagination. Inspiration needs a chance to catch and burn, a way of getting out; that is something that can be managed. You can make time for the your story, for the growth of the spark.  Don’t be ashamed to revel in what if?—that defines science fiction. Staring into space?—that’s part of the writing process just as much as typing and editing and promoting is. Even on holiday…

CONTEST!   Leave a comment and email in the month of January and be eligible to win a Kindle version of The Dead Man’s Deal by Jax Daniels.  Emails will be used only for contacting the winner.

Interview with an Artist Q1: Liiga Smilshkalne

Question 1

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about hiring an artist to do a portrait.  I have so many other concerns: the writing (the finishing!), the critiquing, the editing, the proofing, the querying, the marketing, the production work, and the cover art.  This doesn’t even account for the day job or life in between all the cracks.  So why take time and money to bother with a portrait? After all, I can’t even use it for a cover if I go the self-publishing route since the only books that use portraits on the cover are dusty old tomes and biographies.

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The answer is that this was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my writing life. I got to meet my character in a way that felt solid.  The thrill of looking into his eyes for the first time had my mind churning into creative overdrive.  My brain had a new toy to obsess over.  My story, very well worn from my years of working it, fired up hot and vivid in my brain.  A section of text that I struggled with got easier to mold, to turn over, to play with until I found the right shape.  During the time the artist was sending me pictures, I threw out and rewrote the chapters on the escape from Cete Kellen…chapters that had bugged me for years but that always defeated me in hand-to-hand, er, hand-to-keyboard combat. This time, I won. In short, working with an artist to manifest my vision inspired me deeply.

I wanted to learn more about this process from the artist’s perspective so I interviewed her. Over the next couple of weeks, I will post the interview.  Perhaps you, too, will decide to follow your dreams from your written words to a painted picture, maybe even with Liiga Smilshkalne.

Question 1: Who is Liiga?

My name is Liiga, and I am from Latvia, where there may or may not be dragons. More specifically, I am from the country’s capital Riga, and the resemblance to my name is merely coincidental.

I started dabbling in painting pretty early in life, but it wasn’t until I discovered digital art and decided I absolutely need to know how all these people online had managed to create such wonderful, colorful paintings on this strange, new medium, that things got serious. Although I studied economics and business and afterwards political science in university, I never quite stopped drawing, until at some point I realized that what had initially been a hobby had turned into a job. So I’ve been pretty much continued along the same line ever since.

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New bucket list item: get to Latvia to see the dragons! Click the title link following to see the shy dragon in the clouds better. Divia by Liiga Smilshkalne


Full interview will be available after the last of the selected questions has published on December 12.