Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It's Worth Repeating

Ever since breaking down and joining the e-reading wave, I’ve read more books than ever before, partly because the books are right there at my fingertips and partly because the e-reader has made books more affordable.

If you were to pick up my Nook, you might be surprised by the number of erotica novels I own. This is another one of those wonderful things about e-readers. It gives readers the chance to discreetly purchase books they might have passed on when shopping in the brick and mortar bookstore. However, my interest in erotica is mostly academic. Good writers love to read. It makes us better writers.

No, this isn’t the female version of:  ‘I buy Playboy to read the articles’. My writing has benefited from reading erotica. That is, if you like a good sex scene. If you’re more conservative then you’d disagree, and that’s okay. Not everyone likes a good sex scene.

The other day, a friend and I were talking about a series she’s reading on her Nook and she admitted the graphic sex scenes made her blush, but they also kept her reading. Just as a good sex scene will keep a person reading, a bad one will make them want to want to throw their e-reader across the room. Okay, maybe the reaction won’t be that extreme given how pricey e-readers can be, but you get the idea.

Recently, I had the urge to chuck my Nook at the wall when I was reading a wonderful contemporary romance novel and came across a badly described sex scene. Throughout most of the scene, the writer seemed to be dancing around what was happening. Still we got the gist. Then it happened. The writer took the plunge and named a part of the male anatomy, and that’s when I rolled my eyes and almost vomited. Not because she was too graphic, but because she made me so uncomfortable with how clearly inhibited she was.

What did the writer do that made me want to claw my eyes out? She described the male character’s testicles as his jewels. I’m not kidding. His jewels! I wanted to run from the room screaming because I knew exactly disease the writer was suffering from. The writer wanted her characters to be intimate, but she couldn’t let go of her own hang ups. She let her personal feelings become those of her characters. 

I don’t blame this or any other writer for this shortcoming. It’s easy to self-censor. We’re sitting at the computer writing some really raunchy scene when our grandma’s face pops into our minds. We imagine Grandma reading it and demanding an explanation while reminding us she’ll never be able to show her face in church again thanks to us. It doesn’t have to be Grandma’s influence. It could be the kids or the parents or anyone else whose opinion we value. Some of us just never learned how to write a good sex scene because of our religion, morals, or any other thing. Some of us just don’t realize that we need to separate our feelings from that of our characters.

If your characters are the kind who would have a steamy encounter in a public restroom then I assure you they’re probably going to use the language that goes along with it.  If your main guy is a womanizing bastard, he’s most likely going to be more believable telling a woman to suck his cock than to please give him oral sex if you know what I mean.

If that doesn’t sound like a tactic you’re comfortable employing then I’d suggest you avoid the steamy scenes altogether. If it’s important that your readers know your characters had sex then you should either just tell us or simply imply it.  If you say the characters kissed passionately and then the man swept the woman into his arms and carried her to bed, we’ll assume. That assumption will be cemented if they wake up in the same bed the next morning. Then we’ll know they had sex and you won’t have to go through the agony of describing it.

If you must describe it though, and you’re just not good at it but want to be, then read the sex scenes of your fellow writers. I for one drew a huge amount of inspiration in this area from contemporary romance author Erin Nicholas. That woman not only knows how to write a page turner, but she can craft a sex scene that doesn’t make me cringe with its clinical verbiage. By reading her work, along with others including and up to erotica authors, I became more comfortable with writing sex scenes and my work improved because of it.

Right now you may be thinking this sounds like a familiar rant. Yes, I’ve discussed this before, but given the fact that bad sex in novels is still running rampant, it was worth repeating. For those of you who don’t know, there is an award handed out by The Literary Review for Bad Sex in Fiction. Clearly, I’m not the only one taking notice of this problem! I just hope that’s one award I don’t win.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Great Debate

If you don't already know, I'm a firm believer in entering writing contests. For writers who are just starting out, top contest finishes provide a good alternative to publishing credits. That's not to say I enter every contest I hear about, but there are some that I think are more valuable than others.

One of the contests I've participated in since its inception is the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA). It's an annual contest that provides budding writers a chance to showcase their talent and build an audience. With judges familiar to the industry, the contest can also be a way to get noticed by agents and editors and maybe even publishers. Many a career has been launched thanks to this contest.  Not to mention, there's no entry fee so the only investment writers make is one of time.

As much as I love and appreciate ABNA, I've been giving serious thought to not entering this year. Earlier in the year, I made the decision to take a different approach to my work. Rather than writing with the goal of mainstream publication, I'm going to write what makes me and my fans happy. Sure, this approach won't make me wealthy or well known, but it will make writing more of a passion and less of a job.

Along with this, I decided I wasn't going to enter anymore writing contests, especially those that come with an entry free. Two months ago, that was an easy decision to make. Last week, I got the email from the ABNA administrators announcing the 2014 contest and providing me with all the details I'd need to enter. My finger hovered over the delete button, but I just couldn't do it. Instead, I opened the email and found myself thinking that maybe I should give it a shot.

I have a couple of manuscripts ready for submission. All I have to do now is make that final decision as to whether I throw my hat in the ring or not. If I do enter, I'm not going to spend my days obsessing over the results as I have in the past. I'm just going to upload my entry and let the chips fall where they may. If I enter that is. 

One part of me says that I should stick to my guns and just learn to let go. The other part says I have nothing really to lose and there's always that chance that I could have a lot to gain. I still haven't made up my mind yet. When I do, you can rest assured, I'll let you know. Until then, the great debate rages on.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm on Your Side

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the movie, Saving Mr. Banks. From the moment I sat down, I was hooked. The movie is not only well acted, but it struck a personal note with me.  Warning: if you haven’t seen the movie, you may not want to read this blog until then so as to avoid any possible spoilers.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of Walt Disney’s acquisition of the film rights of Mary Poppins a book by author P.L. Travers.  To say Disney and Travers butted heads would be putting it mildly, if we’re to believe the movie’s version of events.

From the beginning of the film, its evident Disney is going to have his hands full with this undertaking when Travers and her agent argue at length about whether or not she should proceed.  In the end, she agrees to meet with Disney. At this first meeting, we’re given more of an understanding of Travers’ reluctance to let go when she tells Disney, with a note of desperation, that Mary Poppins is family to her. Of course, we all know Travers eventually released the rights or we wouldn’t have Mary Poppins. 

In Saving Mr. Banks, P.L. Travers is portrayed as inflexible and unreasonable and downright hostile in contrast to the infinite patience of Walt Disney who’s determined to secure the rights to her story. Throughout the film, Travers makes demands nothing short of outrageous. Not only does she insist on a line by line review of the script, which she is to be granted final approval of, but she doesn’t approve of the name given to the mother of the Banks children. At one point, she even vetoes the use of the color red in the film.

As the film unfolds, we’re given an insight into Travers and why the story is so important to her.  This insight really drives home that first meeting with Disney in which she told him Mary Poppins was family. While I’m sure the movie did take some liberties with the storytelling, as most movies do, I’ve read a number of articles that confirm Travers was in fact reluctant to let go the rights to her story. 

As much as I love most things Disney, and despite how much I enjoyed the movie, as an author, I found myself identifying with P.L. Travers. If you’re not a writer, you don’t really understand the emotional investment writers makes in their stories and their characters in particular. Our characters are like our children and letting go of our children, even when placing them in the hands of someone as trusted as Walt Disney, is never easy.  When someone suggests we change our story, it’s as if they’re saying our children aren’t good enough, which is nothing short of insulting. That said, some of us are better  at taking criticism than others, but any writer that tells you they don’t take some sort of exception to having their stories and characters is a liar. 

So, I loved Saving Mr. Banks. Since I feel an equal amount of affection for Mary Poppins, I'm glad Travers was able to let go and release the rights, but I'll tell you one thing that I'd tell P.L. Travers if I'd ever gotten the opportunity. I'm on your side, Mrs. Travers! 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Following Mystery's Approach to 2014

First, I know it’s a bit late, but let me say Happy New Year.  I enjoyed a restful vacation with my family and am now ready to get my nose back to that proverbial grindstone.

Every year, I usually do a December blog post talking about what I want for Christmas. And every year since I started doing that post it’s been the same thing; an offer of either agent representation or publication. Considering that I ask for the same thing every year, I’m sure it goes without saying, I’ve yet to get what I want. 

If you’ll notice this traditional post was noticeably absent last month. Instead, I took an early vacation. During that time, I took a step back from writing and used the time to evaluate what I wanted as a writer. I wanted to figure out what I wanted from my literary pursuits. The answer to my soul searching came from a most unexpected place, Mystery Alaska. I don’t mean the town. In fact, I don’t know if there is such a town. I’m talking about the highly underrated movie with an impressive cast that includes the likes of Russell Crowe, Lolita Davidovich and Hank Azaria to name a few.

Mystery Alaska tells the story of the town’s obsession with the sport of hockey. That obsession takes on new heights when one of the town’s former residents, a fledgling writer played beautifully by Hank Azaria, manages to get an article about his hometown’s religious devotion to the sport published in Sports Illustrated. The article catches the eye of the National Hockey League who devises a plan to put the skills of the Mystery players to the ultimate test by having them play an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. The crux of the movie’s conflict is that the professional players have no interest in playing the Mystery team and have their union file a grievance on their behalf.

Naturally, the National Hockey League isn’t going to stand for this and take the matter to court to compel the players to participate. Having a great deal of money and even more pride invested in hosting the game, Mystery sends a lawyer to argue on their behalf. That lawyer is accompanied by one of the hockey players, a gentle giant affectionately referred to as Tree by his teammates. Court room arguments become heated on both sides, and it’s during one of these pivotal moments that I felt a connection to the Mystery team and realized it was an uncanny metaphor for my writing career.

Mystery’s lawyer Bailey Pruitt was in the midst of making a passionate plea to allow the game to happen. At one point, he gestures toward Tree and tells the court: ‘He don’t make a million bucks a year. He plays to play. He skates to skate because he loves the game of hockey. He loves it.’ That statement struck a chord with me because I realized it was how I used to feel about writing. I didn’t write to be rich or famous. I wrote because I loved doing it and I loved connecting with readers who identified with my characters and my stories. Somewhere along the way, that feeling got pushed to the back of my mind and my heart and was overridden by the need to be offered a traditional publishing contract.

After watching the movie, which I’d seen before, and hearing Bailey’s words again, I realized how much I missed that feeling about writing. I also realized that with all the changes in the publishing industry in the last several years, it’s possible to reach a broader audience and not compromise my artistic integrity without needing the weight of a big name publisher behind me. From this day forward, I’ll be following Mystery Alaska’s approach to my writing. I’ll write what I want, when I want, the way I want for the people I want because I love it.