Sex – yes or no?

April 26, 2009

No, no, get your brain out of the gutter! I’m talking about literature here. Sheesh.

What brought this boggle to mind is when I blew off the afternoon to watch TV with The Daughter Spawn. Sex in the City – the movie – was playing. I’m a latecomer to the series and admit to a guilty pleasure of loving this show. When the entire world was watching it, I had my nose stuck in Discovery Channel and The Food Channel [ironic since I consider kitchens as the devil’s playground]. By the time I caught on to the series, it was playing fifteen times a day on regular TV. I couldn’t figure out why the show always ended five-ten minutes before the end of the half  hour.

Then I saw the movie.

Ohhhh…that extra footage was sex. Graphic member-throbbing, titillating, holy hot tamale in-yer-face sex.

I couldn’t help but wonder why the producers [hello, you little naughty girl, Sarah Jessica Parker] felt this was necessary. I’d been watching the watered-down version for months and thought they got their point across just fine. I found the full front-on whoopie-doo sex a turnoff.

It may be that I have a slipped gene somewhere – must ask Mom about that – but graphic scenes are shocking to me, which I guess is the point? But it reminds me of the seventies when the directors decided they wanted to push the envelope of propriety, and voila! gratuitous sex was born. So what would have normally been a fairly tame movie for a general audience was suddenly shot up a thousand blood pressure points all because we had to see some starlet’s areolas.  I always wondered why. Did the writers feel their story sucked so much that they needed to add an attention getter so people would watch the movie?

I can see it now; “Yeah, Joe, the movie bites the big one, but, hey, if we toss in Suzy Buxom’s silicone hot-buttered lungs, we’ll probably make a little profit.” Crikey, what happened to possessing a little class?

And this is how I feel about detailed, beginning-to-end sex scenes in literature. Unless you’re writing erotica or romance, less is better. Sex scenes have to make sense. To me – and this is my soap box  – gratuitous sex is a cop out and just plain lazy writing. Oh, my storyline is thin, but if I toss in some silk sheets bop time, it’ll attract attention. Indeed.

The problem with this is that most sex scenes are like slurping root beer out of a bottle at a five-star restaurant. The act is out of place with the setting. If your main characters are in a relationship, it’s a given that at some point they’ll go carnal, and writing about it may be a natural progression to the story. I’m good with that – got one of those scenes in my own novel. But does the scene require the actual groaning, smiling, biting, humping, feeling, and screaming? I’d rather have that left up to my imagination, thankyouverymuch.

I’m not exactly June Cleaver; far south of it, in fact. But it’s my personal opinion that writing graphic sex doesn’t enhance the sophistication of your story because most of them are poorly written and/or cliche. If you truly believe the graphic parts lend intrinsic value to your writing/story, try taking it out. I’m betting that in most cases, the reader won’t miss the gymnastics. Writers can easily do the lead-up and then cut to the post-mambo scene, allowing the reader make up their own mind as to what they did in between.

When in doubt; don’t. [jumping off soap box]

Are you too clever?

March 17, 2009


So hubby put his finished book down with a sigh. Good book, I ask. Yeah, sez he, but the dialog…he snapped his fingers – he always does that when he’s looking for the right words – the dialog was too witty. I mean, no one is that verbose and clever all the time. Sometimes you don’t need five paragraphs filled with twenty-five dollar words to answer someone’s question about how they’re feeling.

Ah, now I’m thinking he’s referring to my brother, who has a penchant for this sort of thing. I think it’s either a result or collateral damage from being a lawyer. Either way, he can make our eyes glaze over while waxing poetic on the most mundane of topics, making us all want to slit our throats.

I then began to wonder about the dialog in my own book. Nearly all the reviews commented that my dialog was the best part of the book since it unfolded the plot while establishing a great rapport between my two main characters. But was I too witty – totally new territory for me – had I gone too far in making their conversation convoluted? The reviews said no. Personally, I feel that it’s borderline, and my subsequent works have much better, real, dialog.

But the conversation got me to thinking about dialog because this is one of the most important vehicles a writer has to make the story come to life, establish rapport between characters, and keep the reader engaged. But ya gotta keep it real.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get up in the morning, I’m far from clever. If someone asks how I feel, I’m unlikely to say (unless I’m chemically altered), “Ah, the morning is my time to breathe in fresh life, newness, and hope. The sunshine kissing my face makes me believe there really is a higher power that is insisting I take the day off and make merry with Antonio Banderas.” Instead, I’m going to say I feel like shit, where the hell is my coffee, and I’m taking the effing day off to stalk Antonio Banderas. Now that’s real dialog.

Yet I see verbose, overly clever dialog in submissions and in very well-pubbed books – like the one hubby was complaining about. No one is that linguistically adroit all the time, and I believe writers fall in love with their own wit to the detriment of realistic dialog. Writers would be wise to evaluate their dialog. Is it believable? Unless you’re my brother and can command a room for twenty minutes on why we shouldn’t call UC Berkeley “Beserkly,” keep it simple, keep it real, and leave the clever pontification to my brother.

Character traits

March 15, 2009

Every now and then I read a blog post that makes me wish I’d written it, and was that funny. But Barbara Poelle beat me to it on both counts with her discussion about character traits (Bwaha! First time I typed that, it came out “trains.” WTF is a character train?)

Go. Read. Laugh. Change your underwear. Go to work. I guar-an-tee it’ll improve your writing.

Handsies, nosies, eyesies, earsies

March 14, 2009

No, I don’t need a medical checkup, but the jury is out whether a psych eval is in order. I’m holding out for the beagle having one done first because she’s just flat-out weirder than I am.I mean, come on…what dog insists on an olive in her water bowl and parsley sitting next to her designer chewie bone?

No, what I’m talking about is tactile and sensory description. So much of the writing that I read lacks these elements, and it never ceases to amaze me. See, authors, by nature, are (or should be) observers of life. If there is something inane or inconsequential going on, we should be the first ones to notice it because it’s those silly little things that enrich our writing and give it depth.

For example, I was blathering on my personal blog about how my floss always breaks even though the package swears it is guar-an-teed to be strong enough to climb Mt. Everest. Well, if that’s the case, then how did I manage to fling a piece of trapped meat across the room after it broke – again. Sure glad I hadn’t decided to go mountain climbing that weekend. Ok, it’s stupid stuff really, but it’s also the possible setting for a scene. It’s what adds character and flavor to our writing.

What I see happen all too often are writers who forget all those rich observations of the daily inanities of life and write flat, lifeless prose. Someone doesn’t just sit in a chair; they drink in the rich smell of new leather as it caresses their aching backs. How do I know? Because I observed it when I sunk into a great leather chair at Costco. Hubby had to bribe me to get out of it. But I took that experience and dropped it into a scene in Donovan’s Paradigm.

We writers are such fortunate folk to see life through a unique prism, and we have to take full advantage of our senses. We don’t just watch a couple having an argument on a beach. We notice their expressions, the pitch of their voices, their body language, what they’re wearing, the feel of the sand under their bodies, the smell of the salty air, a gull taking a giant dump on their…no scratch that one. But in other words, we live the experience through our own filters so when we need to dig into our bag of tricks for someone having an argument, we have the couple from the beach. What could have been dull now has dimension because the writing tapped into the tactile and sensory elements.

In my opinion, there is no excuse for flat, lifeless writing. So if you take a look at your own work and think that Lynn just may come after you with her Red Pen From Hell, take a walk around the mall, the beach, or the park and have a good look around. Heck, go to Costco. And, hey, if you do, have a sit in that leather chair. I swear, it’s a religious experience you just may want to write about.

Writing Pet Peeves

March 5, 2009

I’ve been reading the latest batch of pitch session submissions for my upcoming appearance at the Big Sur Writer’s Conference. I’m seeing some great writing; one of which I’ve already asked to see the full. But there are others that have revealed a trend that makes my teeth itch.

The Big Start/The Big Letdown: Nearly every one of them start off with something happening – a breakup, a surgery scene, a fight – some bit of action that grabs us by the seat of the pants, Then they blow it by veering the next scene way off course with backstory. It’s like the pages are winking at me. “Ah ha! Got you, didn’t I? You’re hooked, and now I can go back to setting things up.”

The problem is, I’m not hooked. Sure, I was hooked for that opening scene, but my interest dwindled immediately when I saw the filler stuff come rolling down the pike.

I can see how this happens. Usually that opening scene didn’t fully introduce the character, so now the writer feels they have to go back and properly introduce their character to reader. They go into great detail about where they are from, how they think, what they look like – anything but moving on with the story. That’s when I hear the metaphoric foot hitting the brakes.

There is a formulaic feel to this type of beginning. First: obligatory pow! opener – check. Second: introduce the character – check.

It’s backpeddling and derails the story. If you’re going to pow! us, then keep that pow! going, and introduce your character gently. You’ve already sucked us in, so don’t make it feel as though shot your wad of cash on a great opener and that’s as good as it’s gonna get.

Who Are You, Kind Sir?: Another pet peeve that I’m seeing in these submissions is how writers bring in characters without a proper introduction. I so enjoy a nice howdy-do. If we’re meandering on for a few pages and your character pulls in to her office and sees “Kevin” talking on the phone, then tell me who “Kevin” is. The way it’s written, I’m thinking I missed a paragraph where Kevin was brought into the scene. It makes me feel like I’m reading a story already in progress, and I missed a whole bunch of stuff. I hate being late for parties, and I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m late for a character’s intro.

I have other writing pet peeves, but I think I need another cup of coffee first…

I got so smart ’cause of the blogs…

February 10, 2009

I do so much reading, I’m amazed I’m not cross-eyed. If I don’t have my nose stuck in a manuscript, I’m wandering around some of my favorite blogs. I hit two of them this morning over my SECOND cup of coffee. I never drink more than one, but it’s effing cold in sunny Southern California…34 degrees. That’s inhuman in my code of ethics. The very idea that I have to SCRAPE my windshield and blast the defroster at 5:30 a.m. insults every fiber of my being. I very nearly passed on going to the gym, it was so cold. But I digress.

Nicola Morgan is an achingly talented writer whose blog is filled with wonderful, and often humorous, bits of advice for writers. It’s not unusual that she has me snorting coffee through orifices not meant to pass liquid. Her post today is especially poignant, though not her normal mirthful fare. And you know what? That’s okay because some things aren’t always so funny in this biz. Nicola gives sage advice about publishing that second book. The idea that once you’re published and your foot is in the door, that you never have to worry about not being pubbed again. As Nicola explains, this isn’t true, and she tells you why.

My next button click was over to the Waxman Agency’s blog. Their post on explaining high concept is brilliant in its detailed breakdown of what tickles our fancy. As they relate, everyone is always asking how we’re dealing with the economy and whether it has altered the way we do business. Their reply:

it’s not a matter of changing, it’s about refining.

Boy,  it’s that and a bag of potato chips. We’re all in refinement mode in order to pub the next Best Thing, and as the Waxman blog states, it comes down to “high concept.” This notion often gives authors reason to drink heavily and put their foot through their computer monitors. High concept is simply something that’s hugely appealing to a large populace.

This made me think of how and why authors  slip into cliché and overdone. If it is so incredibly popular, why not try it again? And again. And again. Think DaVinci Code. Agents and editors groaned at seeing the flood of wanna-be DaVinci Codes because they weren’t unique. Dan Brown already did it; think of something else.

Waxman Lit writes:

Often, making the leap to high concept is a matter of redirecting your passions and strengths into an area with more commercial appeal. For instance: turning the Salem story inside out and giving it a totally new spin is high concept; a novel set in the heretofore underreported witch trials of Borneo is not.

I wanted to stand up and cheer because he’s saying that it’s fine to write in an impacted genre, but you MUST give it a whole different spin – something I pray to the Lit Gods about on a daily basis because this very issue makes up the bulk of my rejections. People write about Alzheimer’s or divorce or addiction, but they’re not telling me anything new. The only one to do this with huge efficacy is Kate McLaughlin’s fabulous book, Mommy, I’m Still In Here. The bipolar category is jam-packed, yet Kate’s story took this overcrowded concept to a whole new level that had me clutching my throat while cheering through a box of Kleenex.  That is high concept.

Anyway, for a darn good morning read, treat yourselves to these wonderful blogs. And go easy on the coffee…

“How obedient do I have to be?”

February 9, 2009

I spoke with an author at a conference a couple weeks ago. We were at the bar, so her tongue was a bit looser than it normally would have been, which was fine by me. She told me of receiving the edits from her editor and was concerned. Some, she agreed, could and should be made, but she flat out disagreed with others. “She hasn’t taken into consideration what my intentions are for this book,” she told me. “So, does my editor expect total obedience?”

Hmm. Tough question. Wearing my editor hat, my first reply could be “heck ya!” On the other hand, I’ve had many fabulous, enlightening conversations with my authors, and it was they who were able to convey their hearts to me – feelings that transcend the words on the pages. With that information, my editors could help smooth out the rough edges of the manuscript in order to deliver that message

In the end, do I expect to argue over every single edit? No. And I have. It’s freaking exhausting. So, while I don’t expect total obedience, I do expect the author to have the maturity to know when to speak up and when to call it a day.

I see this as a trust issue. The author must have the trust and faith in their agents or editors to deliver a fabulous product. We gain trust by having a good reputation, making the big sales, choosing great projects, and selling lots of books. These are the folks with a “good nose.”

What gets in the way of that trust is ego, in that it shuts the door on that trust. The idea that “no one knows this book better than I” may be valid, but at some point you have to release the grip on your book and allow that other opinions may be worth listening to. The idea that “no one has better ideas than I” makes for a very rough working relationship – and I’ve had my fair share of this over the years.

This is a tough business, and being critiqued via edits is painful because someone is looking at your work and saying, “this or that would work better.” Publishing is a cooperative effort, and there must be give and take and communication.

So how obedient should she be? I suggested that she do a quick ego check, take three aspirin, and call me in the morning.

Physical description in blocks of text, watch those bosoms…

January 28, 2009

Judy noticed the woman was tall, blond, and had a healthy bosom. She wore expensive jewelry as though she’d been born in it. Her nails were manicured to fine points and sported blood-red polish. The woman’s clothing was woven from the finest linens and silk that money could buy. Her black sweater offset the woman’s straight teeth.

I admit to a bias against physical descriptions that take up blocks of text like this. It derails the story. Here you have your reader’s mouth watering with action, and SCREEEEECH … let’s take a brief time out while we get a description of what the character looks like.

To me, these text blocks show a lack of agility and imagination because they’re all tell and no show. It’s like a menu, dry and flat. Action – Obligatory Description of one character – Action – Obligatory Description of next character. Ka-thunk ka-thunk.

It’s easier on the eye when writers weave in a few descriptions while keeping the story where it belongs – firmly entrenched in the action. Descriptions, in general, are a personal choice. Some authors prefer to leave their characters features up their readers’ imaginations. Others want to fill in every nitty gritty detail. I’m ok either way; but I do not like seeing text blocks. Show your writing chops by adding bits of description here and there.

Judy walked over to the snoring woman laying face down in the gutter and pulled the near-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s from her jeweled-encrusted fingers. She shielded the woman’s body from the water that splashed up from a passing car. Could this be the senator’s missing wife? I’m betting someone will pitch a fit when they see mud and urine stains covering her Donna Karan slacks and sweater. She tenderly brushed the thick, blond hair from the woman’s face and noticed a finely manicured nail indelicately inserted in her nose. “Helloooo,” Judy whispered into a diamond-studded ear. “Anyone home?”

Ok, Hemingway it ain’t. But you see that it’s possible to give full descriptions while keeping the action going. Descriptions are great because they give us a frame of reference. In this case, it gives us a visual of the woman’s stature and, well, lack thereof.

This is something I see a lot in submissions, and my reaction is always the same; ka-thunk.

And while I’m bleating on about descriptions, be careful these descriptions make sense. For instance, in the example I used, I listed “a healthy bosom.” First off, who uses that term anymore? Sounds like something my grannie would have said right before she clucked her tongue. Yet I just read one today – in the book of a very well-pubbed author. For shame. Made me go “eww.”

Keep in mind that if you have a character observing another character, as I do above, ask yourself whether that observation makes sense. I mean, does it make sense to have Judy, a woman, take notice of this woman’s “healthy bosom”? Not unless she’s gay or it’s a foreshadowing that those bosoms are going to see some action fairly soon.

I recommend that you avoid the text block description. It’s clunky and almost acts like a quickie commercial break. If you make me take a commercial break too many times, I’ll order the beagle to fire up the blender.

Character Investment

January 22, 2009

Characters are the vehicles in which a story moves along, right? So it’s not a stretch of our quasi-firing synapses that in order for readers to care about the story, they have to care about the characters. It’s called Character Investment, and I subscribe heavily to this because it’s what helps make a story bankable.

Plots are great; after all, it’s what drives us to turn the pages. But it’s the characters that make the plot come to life. I just rejected a manuscript I really wanted because the subject matter was wonderful, and the perspective was unique and marketable. The problem was that I couldn’t invest in the character because the author never let me know his character’s depth and breadth.

A fabulous plot is a wasted effort if I can’t get a feel for the characters. Who are they? What drives them? How do they react to confrontation or conflict? What thought processes do they encounter when trying to resolve a crisis? Are they hot heads or easy going? Do they tend to be punctual or late? What kind of books would they read? What foods do they like? Are they wine or beer drinkers? Do they have friends? What does their house look like? Their closets?

Obviously not all of these elements will be infused in the story, but I think this is a good writing exercise when developing a character. If they’re real to you, the author, then it’s easier to make them real in your story. And you definitely need to make them real in your query letter. The only flat thing in your manuscript should be the pages.

I gotta question

January 21, 2009


If you query an editor or agent and they email you back with a set of questions about your story, we’re doing this because your query lacked some key details. Usually we’ll just reject it because we can’t do your job and ours as well. However, if the subject matter seems to be quasi interesting, I’m not one to leave a stone unturned. I’ll ask questions. I expect this to serve two purposes.

  1. A gentle admonishment to the author that they need to refine their query better so that dolts like me won’t be forced to ask those questions.
  2. I’m genuinely interested in those answers.

The very best thing you can do is answer the damn questions. Please do not send me your chapter outline, a prologue, and your first two chapters because you’re basically saying, “I don’t know how to answer you, so read my stuff. It explains it all.”

Know what? I’ll toss it. All of it. First off, I didn’t ask for pages. I asked questions. Reason I didn’t ask for pages is because I’m not sure I want to read it yet. I need more 411, yanno? Hence, my friggin’ questions!

Personally, I consider it impudent to send me stuff I didn’t ask for while neglecting to provide what I did ask for. I’m not on the verge of curing cancer or fixing the budget, but I am a busy little girl, and an author who makes me work harder to get the answers to simple questions makes me cranky. I hate being cranky; it makes those lines appear in between my eyebrows, and it scares the beagle (which would be a good thing, actually). But there is no way I’m going to spend a half hour perusing pages I didn’t request just so I can ferret out answers that you should have included in your query in the first place.

Argh! Now I’m getting all cranky just thinking about this prologue, outline and three chappies someone sent me. Beagle, fire up the blender, Lynnie needs a stiff jolt.

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