Put down that book

Put down that book

Wotcher!

So it’s been a while, hasn’t it? How have you been? Recently settled back into my little Canadian dwelling after a long, wonderful and exhausting trip to Europe, it seems to me that this rainy day is perfect for a new blog post.

Shall we talk a bit about writing? I’d like that.

Now, I love a good book. One of my favourite activities is to wander around Waterstones and pluck random novels from the shelves. Every reader has their own little ritual for picking a book. Some will look at the blurb on the back. Some go for prize-winning works. Some get recommendations from friends. Maybe some of you like to judge them by their covers, shame on you.

Here’s my personal method, feel free to test it.

First I look at the blurb. Is it snappy? Is the plot appealing to me? Good. Then I open it at page one and read the first two or three paragraphs. If I find myself reading the whole page and then some, that book is mine!

Finally I open it somewhere in the middle and once again, read a few paragraphs. This is because the opening of a novel is not always reflective of the entirety of the writing. Is the dialogue any good? How does the style hold throughout? This is important because there are quite a few, shall we say, grammatical choices that will make me put down a book and never ever ever ever pick it up again.

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Let us review some of those, because why the hell not?

Bland narration

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There is a stereotype in the writing world that first person is for young adults. There are first person young adult novels, absolutely, of course, sure. But there is also Irvine Welsh. Present tense storytelling suffers from the same stereotype. But once again, give Irvine Welsh a try. His are some pretty fucking brilliant first person, present tense novels.

But.

More often than not you open a first person novel and it feels like the usual third person narrator is for some reason speaking in first person. You cannot, repeat, cannot approach a first person narrative in the same way you would a third person narrative. They are completely different and require two very different states of mind from the author. When you are writing in first person, your narrator isn’t some mystical entity (unless it is). It’s a person. A living, breathing human being (unless it’s not).

You need to be an actor. You are the character. You’re a fifty-year-old working-class lorry driver with a kind heart and simple style. Would you describe your partner like a painter would describe a sunset? Doubtful. You are brushing your teeth after a long day at work. Would you stop and describe your wavy dark hair and piercing green eyes in front of the bathroom mirror? No, you would not.

Besides, it is so much fun to just be a character, act like them, talk like them. Go ahead and enjoy it. If you do, there’s a good chance your readers will too.

 

Over-the-top punctuation

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Ellipsis followed by exclamation mark does not… create surprise! It is not… punchy! Mainly, it’s just… aggravating!

That is not how you create suspense in a scene. Don’t you see how it doesn’t make any sense? Suspense should build through content and emotions. This is a gimmick. Get rid of it.

Please also get rid of this!! And how about leaving this in the trash?! In fact, even a single exclamation point, used by a third person narrator, is cringe-worthy. “Then he discovered that, standing next to her, was his father!” Why are you attracting attention to yourself? You are not a character, you are not part of this story, make yourself scarce, for God’s sakes!!

Here’s a confession. I put down The Catcher in the Rye and never took it up again. Want to know why? Because it kept telling me how to pronounce every single sentence. Italics are acceptable if, and I would argue only if, the sentence could mean two different things, depending on the inflection. Otherwise, keep your italics for titles and foreign language words.

Yes, style is important. Yes, experimenting is fine. But please do make sure it actually improves the immersion. Stories are meant to be captivating, to draw you in. Aggressive punctuation pulls you out. Just do the math.

 

Forced feelings

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Okay so I’m just going to come out and say it. Twilight. The Twilight series is a great example of that, but it is not the only one.

You’ve seen this happen. The main girl and the main guy are madly in love and you can’t for the life of you figure out why. “But Gwen, love just happens, there is no why!” Shut it, stop, don’t. People who don’t have fun together, don’t laugh together, don’t share deep thoughts, don’t allow themselves to be silly in front of each other, people who don’t like each other are not in a strong forever relationship. If they hadn’t tragically and stupidly died, I would have given Romeo and Juliet about a month together. Love at first sight? Please. I think what you mean is lust at first sight. And you can’t write a good romance on lust alone. When I read about a romance, I want to be reading about a friendship.

This also goes for other feelings. Hate. Jealousy. Guilt. Shame. Don’t force your characters to feel things because you want them to. Create the believable circumstances in which they will organically come to feel the feels. They will thank you for it. Or they won’t. Don’t pressure them.

 

So here you have a nice little top three of what will make me put down a book. What are your personal pet peeves? How about sharing with the rest of the group?

Laters!

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3 tips for writing a good sex scene

3 tips for writing a good sex scene

Wotcher!

Here I am, back in writer mode with a writing-themed post for you guys. As the title probably suggests, there is going to be mature talk going on around here, so there. Ye be warned.

As an asexual writer, I get asked – okay, so I don’t get asked personally, but I see a lot of asexual writers getting asked and I’m right there reading the conversation and feeling way involved and all – how one approaches sex scenes when one doesn’t have that instinctive pull towards sexual activity in the first place.
So I thought I’d try to clarify some stuff for you guys and give you a glimpse into my own relationship to sex scenes in the media, as an asexual person and as a fiction writer.

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I think there is an assumption out there that sex scenes exist solely for sexual people to get off on them. Surely asexual people are excluded from the intended audience. We must be repulsed, or at the very least bored, the second clothes start flying off. That’s just not true. There is no universal taste, in anything, for any group of people. Really. Just like not all gay men are obsessed with Judy Garland, not all asexual people crinkle up their noses at sexual content. I know I don’t.

I write sex scenes. In fact I’ve written quite a few of them. It’s not a chore and it doesn’t make me cringe or blush or want the earth to open up and swallow me.

There are many reasons why I might enjoy a particular sex scene.

It’s well-written.
It fits the story.
It makes me feel close to the characters involved.
It’s exciting.

Oh don’t give me that look.
Sexual content can be exciting even for asexual readers/viewers. Here’s how I like to explain that one to bewildered, shocked friends. The reason erotic content can turn me on is because I’m able to tap into the characters’ feelings and sensations. It doesn’t mean I’m attracted to either/any of them. In the same way, I have never wanted to go bungee jumping. But if a character in a movie or book has always wanted to go bungee jumping and finally gets to experience it, I will feel their joy and elation as they jump and I will be very enthusiastic about this whole bungee jumping experience.

You know.

Bungee jumping.

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On the flip side, it is also quite frequent for me to roll my eyes loudly – that’s right – at sex scenes. That is because sometimes, and by sometimes I mean often, it ends up being tasteless, boring, useless or all three.
So I thought I’d conjure up a little list for you, because who doesn’t like a little list?

These are my top three tips for writing sex scenes.

1. It’s not a sex scene. It’s a scene.

If one lazy Sunday afternoon, you find yourself writing a sex scene into your story because well you have to have a sex scene in there somewhere, right, then please… pretty please… can you not?

It is perfectly okay to fast forward to the next day, or the next morning, or the next shower. Not in a “it’s icky and taboo and we shouldn’t show it” way. I trust you know that’s not what I’m saying at all. No, just in the same way that you wouldn’t show your character going to the restroom unless something important or relevant was going to happen in the bathroom stall.

When you’re writing a sex scene, you’re not just writing about the sex. You’re writing a scene that adds something to your book. Maybe your character is going to call out the wrong name and it’s going to trigger a whole lot of awkwardness. Maybe it’s your hero’s first time and that’s what the story is all about. It doesn’t even need to be that big – hahaha, shut up. Maybe your character is a little bit lost in life right now and they’re trying to find something reassuring to cling to. Maybe your couple is in love and you want to express their connection through sex, among other things.

The point is, unlike in real life, sex in a story is always about more than just sex. You want to make sure it is, and you want to know what’s really going on there. Being in control of that will also allow you to figure out the tone and conflict of the scene. Because yes, even a sex scene deserves tone and conflict and all that good stuff that makes stories great.

In conclusion: there is nothing more annoying than two or more characters having sex just because the writer wants them to have sex.

2. Leave euphemisms in the trash where they belong.

Repeat after me, class.
Vaginas are for sex. Dark caves are for speleology.
Penises are for sex. And peeing. Love sticks are for… hell I don’t know.

You get my drift. Euphemisms belong in crappy romance novels and I’m not even going to put an “unless” here. Oh wait! Unless your goal is to make the reader laugh out loud in the middle of the train station. Then go right ahead. Knock yourself out.

Otherwise, please use your words. You actual words. If your characters are fucking, why not say fuck? It’s a good word. It’s short and to the point. And it’s rude, which is always fun. Go on then, don’t be scared. Fuck.

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3. Don’t slip out of character.

If you are telling a story, you have most likely spent a lot of time figuring out the perfect point of view to tell it from. If you haven’t, then you possibly have more urgent stuff to deal with than how to write a sex scene.

Don’t throw all that hard work away as soon as the clothes come off. If, say, Tania is your main character, let her tell the story. She’s in there, she’s living it. She probably has very personal, funny, sad, interesting stuff to say about it. It feels a certain way because it’s her and, say, Chloe.

Sex is between specific people and it’s different every time. Make it special. Make it specific. Make it personal.

 


 
Those are my top three tips to you, and myself, for writing interesting, well-rounded, useful sex scenes. Of course I’m always interested to know what you think, so please leave a comment if you have any thoughts. How about sharing your favourite sex scene? Or giving me some of your top tips?

On the Joy of Left-Braining It

On the Joy of Left-Braining It

Hey folks!

So here I am again, with a sorta kinda essay-type post that I went and lazily pulled from my previous blog. It’s still relevant, I should think, and doesn’t make me cringe. Yet.

My first novel has evolved a bit since I wrote this, and I might make another post on the topic soon, as I am currently working a lot on revisions.

Hopefully this will be the first of many more posts about writing techniques, musings and advice – to take or leave as you see fit, eh? I ain’t the boss of ya. So let me know what you think, let me know if you’d like me to tackle any particular topic, let me know if you think I ramble on too much.

Here we go…


 

When we were little, my brother and I used to play with something called kaplas. Kaplas were these small pieces of wood that you could pile up in all sorts of ways to build constructions. I absolutely loved them. They were the simplest toys ever but there was no end to the possibilities. Just as I loved kaplas, I now love stories. With these simple little things that are words, you can build sentences and shape paragraphs. It’s not easy. You have to be smart about it, and careful, because a story built on a shaky base will eventually fall. A word too many on one side of it will impair the balance of the structure.

I grew passionate about the workings of stories, in a compulsive and geeky way. I began reading extensively on the subject. John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, Yves Lavandier’s La Dramaturgie, everything I stumbled upon, really. A bit formulaic, maybe, but in these recipes I found some useful tips as well as the reassurance that the craft I wanted to learn was indeed a craft, and that it could indeed be learnt. But as much as you can know in theory about how to tell a story, in the end you still need a story to tell.

The premise of my first novel, Half the World Away, did not come to me. I went looking for it. You see, as much as I love the developing part of writing, the whole plot-characters-voice business, I’m not overly furnished in the ideas area. This lack of whatchamacallit – could inspiration be the right word? – used to be the source of great shame and a whole lot of worries. How on earth was I to be a writer if I only got a decent idea once in a blue moon? And worst of all, my brother was riddled with them. Somehow it seemed like an unfair deal that he got all the ideas and I got all the allergies.

This was because I used to think, as people often do, that any idea that’s not entirely original, that hasn’t come to you from the depths of your brilliant artist mind automatically belongs in the trash.

To be deemed worthy of the title, a work of art has to be the result of some touch of the Inspiration, or the Muse, or whatever higher power happens not to be too busy at the moment. Not to be rude but this is just utter bullshit. Terrible – and dangerous, if you ask me – misconception. One discards a lot of potentially excellent material.

This particular material was waiting for me in the form of a French writing competition. This particular short story competition was themed, and here, loosely translated, was the prompt:

Invent a future in which all women have disappeared and men rule the earth. Main themes: science fiction, action, romance.

Quite specific, as you see, and yet this was precisely the starting point my unimaginative right brain needed. From there, my much better equipped left brain began working, covering sheets of paper with tiny handwritten notes. Shall I bore you with the details of the process? It involves bubbles, arrows, columns and quite an impressive amount of tea bags. No takers? Ah, well, let’s just fast forward to what came out of it then.

About women’s rights – the obvious subject skilfully hidden in the premise – what can I tell you? In my teenage years, I was desperately trying to keep far away from anything feminist. I sighed heavily at anyone who went all girl-power all-men-are-bastards on me. For the most ethical reasons, you understand. I simply wanted people to regard and speak of men and women as part of a single undistinguished group. Gender equality was not something we should have to fight for. Except it is, of course it is. It’s a terrible thing, really, but sometimes you have to tug very hard at the blanket just to get an inch of it back to your side of the bed. And as much as you love that person on the other side, well they are bloody annoying when they drag the whole blanket to themselves, aren’t they?

At this point, you might be telling yourself something along those lines: “that’s a great theme but if it wasn’t her idea to write about it, maybe it means she’s not that interested in the subject of her own book.” To which I would answer quite simply that I would never have chosen this prompt if I wasn’t interested in the subject. It is a bad idea to write about something you are not interested in. In fact, it may well be impossible.

And if you still feel there is something dishonest about that method, consider this: when you are creating from a prompt, you want to make it your own. So it is going to be about men and women, about how the ones think of and treat the others. Possibly a good start, but this is not enough. What you want now is a point of view, an angle to approach the theme. This is where you have a huge margin for originality. This is how you create a personal story, one that could not be told by someone else. One of the many great things about working on an idea that didn’t come from you is that it removes the temptation of skipping this necessary step. Because as long as you haven’t found your angle, a nagging guilt constantly reminds you that the story you are telling is not yours.

It took me some time to work out my angle. Months, maybe a year. Trying to find a way into the subject, I turned the thing over and over in my mind, looking at it from every possible side I could think of. There I stood in a world totally devoid of women. Why were there no more women on earth? They had been exterminated. What triggers a mass killing like that? Hatred, no doubt. What triggers hatred? More often than not, incapacity to connect. The trail of thought led to communication issues, which was not strictly speaking a surprise. In everything human that ever existed, there was always the problem of communication. We need other people, we want to connect, and at the same time, we have the hardest time getting it right. And getting it wrong has all sorts of consequences, ranging from unpleasant to catastrophic.

Imagine you are, say, in the pub having a friendly chat with your mates. Suddenly, an itchy subject creeps into the conversation. Let’s say politics. Chances are that around that table is someone who disagrees with you on every point. This otherwise charming person is your friend and you really don’t want to fight with them. They state their point of view while you roll over and over in your mind the vehement sentences you couldn’t possibly say aloud. By the time they are finished, smoke is coming out of your ears. If you’re going to say something, it’s now. You should say something. He or she got it all wrong. You should say something. But you hesitate one second too long and then it’s too late. The subject has been changed again. Everyone has moved on except for you. This kind of frustration eats at you for weeks.

Here is the point: one needs to speak.

By the time I figured all this out, the submission deadline for the competition was well behind me. Well, don’t you know, it didn’t matter anymore. When one spends so much time with a story, one tends to become sentimental, you understand.

It is a wonderful feeling to narrow in on what you want to say. Everything around it clicks into place. You get a picture of what the book is going to look like and you can start moving stuff around so that the actual thing matches the picture in your mind. At this point, the canvas, as you may imagine, was not blank anymore. You do not wait until you’ve figured out what you want to say before you start building. Maybe some people would say you should, although I’m not convinced it would lead to better stories. Anyway, the fun part is the moulding of the characters and the world and, for better or worse, that is what I tend to start with.

Because they are human like us – well, most of the time – characters are our most immediate and emotional link to the story. They are among the first things I think about when I write and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that other writers work the same way. But, ideally, you want the characters that will be best suited to illustrate the point you want to make, and to achieve that, you often need to refine them so that everything fits better together.

Sid is an overly self-aware, slightly paranoid, twenty-seven-year-old pizza delivery guy. Jamie is a thirty-year-old freelance journalist, disappointed by the world and bored out of his mind. When we meet these guys, they have given up on communication (linking them ever-so-subtly to the theme). They are not trying anymore. To stop trying is the worst possible thing to do, but it is easier and can get very tempting at times. We all have a well-rehearsed reproach-proof excuse at the ready in case we should stand accused of not trying. I’m shy, is my excuse. It’s more difficult for shy people, you can’t deny it. Sid will tell you that nobody would take him seriously anyway. He’s paranoid. It’s not his fault. Jamie firmly believes that people are stupid and not worth the trouble.

As for the world, it pretty much came naturally from the premise. Although the novel was obviously going to be a science fiction of sorts, the subject matter called for a feeling of reality, so it became more of a dystopia. Had I tried to add flying cars, robots and whatnot it would have felt wrong. Or rather, it would not have felt wrong enough. One big thing that goes crazy in a world of normality attracts more attention. No women meant a slowly dying mankind, a feeling of impending doom that would have a considerable impact on the atmosphere of the story. I chose to make it slow and oppressive like a dying animal struggling to breathe, with sporadic outbursts of violence, as if the creature were kicking in protestation against its fate.

After a lot of building, tearing down and rebuilding, this is how the story came out.

One night, Sid and Jamie come back home to find somebody waiting for them in their living-room. Olivia is one of the only women who escaped the killing, she’s traumatised, scared and she wants to speak. She has an urgent need to establish a connection, to communicate. This is why she has the potential to propel the other two into action, which is exactly what she will do.
Half the World Away is the story of three people struggling to bring communication and truthfulness back into their lives, in a world that has not seen either of those things in years. And once you’ve let them slip away, well it might be hard to get them back. The story came from a prompt, but it sure as hell is my story.

Who are you? Who who, who who?

Who are you? Who who, who who?

Wotcher!

What do you think? I thought I’d experiment with different greetings before I settle on something. You know how quickly these things can become a trademark. I want to make sure I get it right. This particular one is borrowed from Harry Potter’s wonderful character Nymphadora “don’t call me Nymphadora” Tonks.

Anyhoo, guys, I’ve just signed up for two courses from WordPress University. Figured it might give me inspiration and some useful advice. Already received two assignments. They are pretty similar so what I’ll do is I’ll stick ’em in the salad tosser, mix ’em up and pour the result into one post.

The first assignment is all about introductions. Introducing yourself to the world. Hello, world! The second one asks the harrowing question: why do you write? So here I go, trying to address these two topics, in a freestyle, no plan, just talking to you casually sort of way.

I was looking around for a quote I’ve heard many times, from a lot of people, in a lot of rephrasings, paraphrasings, and other assorted phrasings, and I found it. It’s apparently from W. Somerset Maugham.

We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.

It’s quite possible that many others have said the same thing, or something similar. It seems to be a popular thing to think and an even more popular thing to say.

Mr W. Somerset Maugham, with all due respect…

No. I do not have to write. There are about a million other things I could do, probably. Probably I could stop writing if I wanted to. “Having to” sounds important. It sounds heroic, noble, excrutiating. Like you’re tearing bits of your soul out and just smearing it on paper with all the poète maudit pathos befitting the occasion.

The thing is, though, doing something because you “have to” do it isn’t all that amazing. In fact it’s rather dull. It doesn’t require dedication, or any kind of decision on your part. You just have to do it. End of.

Me? Yours truly? I write because I want to. I decided to write, and every time I sit at the computer  with my hands on the keyboard, it’s a choice I’ve made, renewed every day, fresh, joyful. I don’t have to. I want to.

I want to share my thoughts and create emotions. I want to talk about everything that’s important to me, and learn about what’s important to others. Creating stories is a wonderful thing to do. You get to connect with your audience in a very unique way that, as an introvert with social anxiety, I can’t achieve any other way.

When people come up to me and say “you made me cry with this scene” (it’s happened, I write horrible stuff… oops) or “I hate this character, he’s a jerk!” or “that was hilarious,” it makes my heart pound. It’s the closest  you’ll ever get to mind control. How awesome is that? Call it a God complex if you want. Maybe it’s a Writer complex. Actually, I don’t mind the sound of that.

Hi, world! I’m Gwen, and I have a Writer complex.

And with this, I shall leave you with this other, much better if you ask me, quote by Mr W. Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.