12 April 2012

How to Write a Sex Scene

There are two things I should confess before diving in to this subject. I’m certainly no expert on writing sex scenes, so this is less of a structured how-to guide and more of my personal journey into being able to write them at all. Second, what started me on this quest was not even a sex scene. It was a hand job scene.

At a certain point I came to the realization that my book needed a little third base action. Dealing with the gradual progression of a physical relationship, it just seemed natural. Accepting this fact, however, was not nearly as hard as actually writing the scene. (I should have said difficult, I know.) Getting through every sentence was like pulling teeth. I spent days, weeks even, writing sentence by sentence and still not getting anywhere. The whole scene was just a choppy mess. So I tried to figure out why I was having so much trouble.

I have more or less been writing sex scenes since before I even had my first kiss. I say “more or less” because they all followed the same formula. Start with kissing, then some vague description of foreplay, immediately followed by the scene cut. You know, that blank space between paragraphs that serves as a white curtain shielding all the naughty bits. (Ever read Breaking Dawn? There’s a lot of this.) It’s not like the reader doesn’t know what’s going on in that space, either. We know the characters are fucking their brains out. Sometimes there’s a perfectly good reason for this—Breaking Dawn, for example, is a young adult book, not erotica. An explicit sex scene just wouldn’t be appropriate. But if you don’t have a valid reason for making that scene cut, why do it?

When I first wrote my current book as a short story, the sex scene was actually one of the first parts that I wrote, and I decided that I didn’t want it to be longer than a paragraph. I thought I was being clever, making the sex scene purposely vague. It would be obvious—by the time it finally happens in the story, it doesn’t really matter anymore to the narrator, so making it vague was some sort of plot device.

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the vagueness as a copout. What was really stopping me was my own ignorance. What the hell did I really know about a relationship between two gay men? I felt like a stupid, naïve little straight girl who just likes to think about boys kissing.

I kept thinking, realizing that even that wasn’t the real issue. No, it went much deeper (yes, I realize what I just said, and no, I won’t apologize). Because every sex scene I had ever written had been just as vague. It wasn’t the characters. It was me.

I came to a realization. I had a problem with vulgarity. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have a problem with swearing, not in real life or in a narrative. But when it actually came to describing sex—I was terrified! What made it even worse was that I was writing from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy. If it was a girl, I could get away with my usual flowery prose. I couldn’t even fathom using the sorts of words that I knew were needed to make these scenes sound even remotely realistic. If I couldn’t get past my discomfort, then this novel wasn’t going to work out.

I don’t know how the idea came to me. I realized that I had to go beyond my expectations, not just a hand job or a vaguely written sex scene. Even if those were my ultimate goals, I had to break myself completely in order to obtain them. I had to write something more explicit, more intense, so that I would never feel uncomfortable writing these scenes again. Suddenly the solution was very clear.

I had to write a full blown sex scene. And not just any sex scene. A gay sex scene.  

I know what you’re thinking. Does it have to be two guys? Why not just create some random man and woman whose lovemaking I could be some voyeur to? Two reasons. One, I couldn’t take any chance whatsoever that I would fall back onto my characteristic girly vagueness. So no girls allowed. Two, I had to make this scene the extreme of extremes of anything I was ever going to write. If it turned out tamer than what my hand job scene needed to be, then I would fail.

In order to embark on this quest, I had to first abandon my current work and head into an alternate universe. I still wanted to use the same characters but in some nonexistent future where by some miracle they get back together (I like happy endings and I fantasize, ok?). So, characters, check. Setting? Well, the bedroom, obviously. Check. The next step was just to write.

Now, this is me we’re talking about, so I knew I wasn’t going to be disgustingly graphic. But I was determined to be straightforward, get those words out that I was afraid to use. I kid you not, it took me five minutes to write “cock” for the first time. I did it letter by letter, with my eyes closed. It was just so awkward! I had never used these filthy words! But after that first one was over and done with, it became easier to write things more explicitly.

It took about three nights to get the whole scene out. Each sentence had to be slowly crafted in my mind before I could convince my fingers that it was ok to type it. Once it was done, it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The next night, I tackled my hand job scene and found it much easier to write, and I actually made it through to the end.

Getting comfortable with vulgarity isn’t just important for the sex scenes, either. For me, it’s helped to craft the entire voice of my narrator. Because sometimes he’s gonna jerk off, or fantasize, or get a little too excited while making out. (Despite the fact that I’ve asked my boyfriend several times to describe an erection for me, I still can’t get a straight answer.) I can’t be the innocent, vague-sex-scene-writing person that I used to be.

Recently one of my managers at work happened to say that I probably had never said the word “dick” in my whole life, to which I was able to truthfully reply, “That’s not true. In fact, I write it all the time.”

22 March 2012

Psychic Writing

I had another one of my little epiphanies the other day—and I’ve been waiting for it for over a year. I was looking at some diagrams of triangles when a random idea popped in my head. So I wrote it down: “Take a triangle, for example. No matter what the degrees of each angle are, they’re always going to add up to 180.” And suddenly everything clicked.

Let me explain. If I had to briefly sum up my novel, it would be something like: boy fails math, gets tutor, they concoct an elaborate and twisted relationship. When I was first brainstorming, I just happened to choose math as the subject he was failing. Geometry, to be specific, just because that was the subject I took when I was fifteen. And ever since, I’ve been asking myself “Why?? Why did it have to be math?”

The thing is, I hate math. Sure, I was great at it in high school, even managed to get through Calculus. But then I went to a liberal arts college where we could waive math with a C average or an SAT score of 550. So I forgot all about it. Why, then, did my brain automatically turn to math? I didn’t know, so I just went with it, looking up random geometry equations to use and questioning whether or not it should be some other subject, like history or science (besides the fact that Biology or Chemistry would scream “Look at me, look at me, I’m a cliché!”).

I wanted something more. Some sort of symbolic reason for the math to be there. I had this feeling if I kept working at it, trying to figure things out, it would eventually make sense to me.

Then it slapped me in the face. The math had been there the entire time. The characters’ relationship was, and had always been, somewhat formulaic. I just had to look at it that way and make the narrative show it. Part of me had always known this was right before the rest of me could catch up. So like every other crazy idea, everything just sort of fell into place.

I guess I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t fight off the ideas, at least not the major ones. Sometimes I’ll write a scene and then look back and say, “What the hell was I thinking?” But even if I know the scene is complete crap, I don’t delete it. There was some reason for writing it—maybe I realized something about the characters in that scene, or figured out something that has to happen later on in the plot. There’s something there that I can look back on when I’m struggling with another scene.

It’s ok to write something that doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes you just have to go with that gut instinct. Maybe you’re not actually psychic, but there’s a reason for every idea you come up with. You’ll find a way to make them work for you.

For now, just write. Leave the questioning for later.

15 March 2012

Seat Fillers: Why Some Characters Should Be Throwaways

If you had to write your life story, who would you include? Probably your family, your love interests, and your close friends—whoever was especially important to you. What if this story was only focusing on a few months out of your life? Who would you include then? Everyone you came in contact with? Are you allowed to cut someone out if they aren’t important to the story, even if you interacted with them every day?

This is just another one of the dilemmas I’m facing while writing my novel, one that I’m more or less putting off until the second draft. It was a lot easier when my project was just a short story. The minor characters just weren’t necessary; in fact, they were dismissed in less than a paragraph. I just had Jordan say that he had plenty of acquaintances but no real friends because he just didn’t like people. No problem, right?

Well, it’s a problem now. I really just can’t believe that someone who is supposed to be charismatic and manipulative wouldn’t have friends, even if he didn’t actually like them. And when he goes to school and sits down at lunch, is he supposed to be some loner all by himself? It just didn’t fit the character. So that lunch table needed some seat fillers.

I created four friends—Brian, Eric, Max, and Andy. They were created in a rather interesting way, actually. I wrote all five characters into a play. This was a lot of fun and I actually workshopped it in college, but that’s a story for another day.

As I try to develop these characters more and more, I’m wondering if it’s worth it. On one hand, they’re necessary to make the story more lifelike and believable. On the other hand, they might be dragging the story down but just being boring and not adding anything to the plot. The good news is that I came up with a subplot involving two of the friends. Basically Brian—the obnoxious, hotheaded friend—becomes the enemy, someone to be eliminated, while Eric—the shy, insecure one—becomes more of an asset to be manipulated and brought over to the dark side.

Ok, so Brian and Eric are now necessary. But what do I do with Max and Andy? Even in the play they were sort of lackluster. They really were just seat fillers, literally. There was nothing that distinguished them from one another. But if I get rid of them, then I’m just left with three boys at that lunch table. I still don’t buy it. I don’t remember ever seeing a group of just three boys in high school. It’s like they travel in packs. But these boring characters are more than likely going to make the story boring, and I certainly can’t fit in another subplot just to make them necessary.

I’ve narrowed down my options to three:

Option One: Combine Them 

Max and Andy have always seemed interchangeable. So why not just have one character with no personality who’s just sort of there? Four boys would be better than three, at least. The major problem I see with this is that my Max/Andy hybrid would kind of seem like a loose thread. Jordan is my narrator, and Brian and Eric are important to the subplot. So why is this other guy there? By having just one character, the fact that he is unnecessary becomes even more obvious. 

Option Two: Get Rid of Both

This would probably be the best option for the sake of the plot. They really serve no purpose. Their dialogue is predictable, generic, if I let them speak at all (which I haven’t yet, in four and a half chapters). The obvious problem with this option is the lack of realism. I can believe that a teenage boy would only have two close friends, but not that he has absolutely no other friends or even acquaintances to sit with at lunch. My character loses his credibility. 

Option Three: Turn Them into Props 

With this option, they’re just there. They probably never speak. Maybe there are even more boys than Max and Andy. They might not even have names. There might be some vague reference to “the other guys” after an actual conversation with Brian and Eric. Their identities aren’t important because I’m still maintaining the fact that Jordan doesn’t like people. He really doesn’t care. 

I’m leaning more toward option three. You get the realism of an actual group of teenage boys without boring characters having their boring opinions take up page space. At this point, though, I’m still not 100% sure.

Which option seems the best? Or is there a fourth one? Which one would you pick?

08 March 2012

In the Next Booth, or Dialogue Schmialogue

This is my purgatory: a diner in New York City, about half full with people, not too loud, not too quiet. A Wednesday evening in late February. It’s about to start snowing, but no one will know this until they leave. But here’s the problem: nobody can leave. And it’s because of me, because I’m stuffed into a booth with my laptop trying to figure out what these people should say. And since I can’t, we’re all trapped, doomed to stare at each other for all eternity.

Fade in: the diner scene. The first turning point. This may arguably be the most important scene in my story, where my characters finally admit their attraction for one another and start figuring out what to do from there.

Ok, so I’m not a screenwriter, but with the amount of dialogue I use, maybe I should try. This has always been a problem for me. I’m perfectly aware of this fact on my own, but of course I’ve been told this by people on a teen writing website I used to frequent, college professors, or coworkers who started my short story but never finished it (you know who you are!)

So I’ll just admit it. I, Sarah Anne Foster, am a dialogue abuser.

Let’s backtrack to last March when I was having my short story workshopped in my fiction class. I had already chopped down my darling from the 38-page monster that it was down to a more reasonable 24 pages that my fellow writers would be able to digest. And when it came time to discuss the diner scene, like I had dreaded, the subject of dialogue came up. The professor actually held up a page from this scene and compared it to another, more prose-filled page, displaying how quickly the reader breezes through a page of mostly dialogue. This would have been mortifying if I hadn’t been expecting it.

Now while I wholeheartedly admit that I use too much dialogue, I actually disagree with what the professor said next. He claimed that when writing in first person past tense, it’s like you are actually pulling from your memory and you wouldn’t remember exactly what was said. For the most part, you should paraphrase. I really disagree with this. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in first person past tense that didn’t reveal everything that the characters were saying like it was happening in real time. Sure, paraphrasing can be great when you’re summarizing some boring dialogue, but the important lines, I feel, should be there. It isn’t a memory, it’s a story. Even if it's in past tense, the reader needs to be in the moment.

Unfortunately, the amount of dialogue in this scene wasn’t my only problem. It was also what was being said. The problem with this scene can be summed up very well by a comment made by another student in my workshop: “I’d love to be in the next booth.” Basically, my characters are having a very (I mean, VERY, like could be construed as illegal) private conversation in a very public place. The whole conversation was pretty over the top even if the characters had been alone on the living room couch. I’ll spare you an example. Enough mortal eyes have already been exposed to it for my liking. I’ve eventually been able to justify the location to myself (just trust me) beyond my own indulgence, but it comes with a condition. I have to tone it down.

So once my characters are discussing whether it’s a good idea or not for them to have sex, this is the part where I should yell “CUT!” Make my presence known and say, “All right, all right, rein it in, boys. You’re being ridiculous.” But as usual, my dialogue tends to run amok. It’s like the characters go on and on with their conversation and then turn and look at me and say, “Oh, you’re still here?”

The hardest part is figuring out how to get my characters to say things without actually saying them. Is it with gestures, glances, uncomfortable silences? Do I write the whole scene in whispers? It’s a grueling process, but I’ve come up with an interesting strategy: just keep writing the dialogue. I’ll write lines and lines of it and then go back and cut out half. I find if I get out everything that they could possibly say, it’s easier to pick out what they actually should say.

So the solution to my dialogue problem? Just write some more dialogue. Maybe take a break and order a cheeseburger. We’ll get out of here eventually.

01 March 2012

Why I Don't Outline

This can be explained not in words, but in pictures. This is how my evening began:

Not looking very promising, right? Well, this is how it ended:

I rest my case.

Fun Facts: Volume One

What's that, you say? This isn't a real blog post? Again? Well, too bad. I'm feverishly typing away Chapter Five at the moment and with my writing-ADD I started making a list of things I've noticed about my writing. I find most of them rather humorous, so hopefully you can at least have a laugh this week.

Here goes:

  • ·         Despite my self-proclaimed status as grammar nazi, I wholeheartedly believe that when it comes to dialogue, all bets are off. People don’t always speak perfectly. I probably overuse “uhs” and “ums” and “…” as well. I won’t apologize. Except maybe to my first editor.
  • ·         If I’m writing from the point of view of a teenager (which is, um, always), I will find some way to get their parents out of the picture, whether it’s through supernatural elements, important jobs, or general whorishness (e.g. Jordan’s mom).
  • ·         I didn’t know whorishness was an actual word until Microsoft Word did not put a red squiggly line under it just now.
  • ·         I will never just give you the first person narrator’s name. You gotta work for it, wait for the right character to say it. Sometimes you have to wait for chapter two.
  • ·         I live under the impression (or delusion) that every male character I’ve ever created has no chest hair and wears boxers. And they’re circumcised. There, I said it.
  • ·         I have a tendency to occasionally write prose in a poetic fashion. And even if it’s beautiful, it never works. So let’s just say that rereading Lolita for inspiration right now is not helping as much as I had hoped. WHERE ARE ALL THESE FLOWERY WORDS COMING FROM? DAMN YOU HUMBERT!
  • ·         I feel as though I have a translator in my brain that takes what I want to write and changes it into what a teenage boy would say. My favorite example is a line of dialogue that started as “please don’t speak,” and in about five seconds became, “just shut up, ok?” This translator was not always so great and my original strategy was just to swear a lot.
  • ·         What isn’t so easy is having a word that seems PERFECT for the situation but then I realize that my narrator wouldn’t know or use that word. So if anybody has a dumbed down word that means “pretense,” please let me know.
  • ·         I’m crazy about making playlists for my books. There are official ones, unofficial ones. And if you happened to make your way into the Borders I used to work at that one Thursday night during liquidation, you were poisoned with the playlist for my current book because I was allowed to take over the CD player. I will now enjoy an evil laugh with my muse.
  • ·         He just said that he doesn’t have an evil laugh, but that all of his laughs are inherently evil.
  • ·         Sometimes, and I mean ONLY sometimes, and it has to be the perfect trigger (when my boyfriend annoys me) I will start talking as Jordan. He always catches on right away, which I suppose is a good thing, if it means I’ve defined the voice enough.
Ok, I’m done rambling, I swear. I’ll get back to my chapter now.