Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Thing About Writing Sex Scenes

Apologies to my dyslexically-inclined readers — or simply those who see what they want to see — who think this post is actually Writing Sex Scenes About the Thing.  Didn’t mean to get your hopes up.  Stay tuned, though, because this post dwells on something much more forbidden than sex itself.  At least in the realm of commercial fiction.

And that’s the point, really. 

Sex scenes in your novel or screenplay aren’t really about what you think they are, dyxlexic or not.   Which is to say, the good ones are less about the swapping of bodily fluids than they are about the expectations — also known as foreplay — and the setting, context and meaning of a sexual encounter, all of which imbue the ensuing epidermal friction with enough steam to fog a whorehouse window.

Sometimes the best sex scenes have no sex at all.  The page turns, the door closes, and the entire thing plays out only in the mind of the reader.  And who knows where that may lead.

I know about this subject.  In fact, in some circles I’m known for this subject.  My first book, which had fewer actual sex scenes than an episode of Six Feet Under, was classified as “erotica” by the major bookclubs, and to this day remains in that dark little corner of some used bookstores.  The reason has as much to do with the cover — a hot woman with her wrists delicately bound with a scarf — as it did the fact that my story, while skimping on the coital details, had a truckload of the aforementioned settings, context and accoutrements of love making , including that scarf.

The referrees of sexual fiction.

Truth is, publishers and movie makers are far more lenient toward vanilla-scented sex than they are toward what the masses construe as sexual deviation.  They are much more comfortable with violence, torture and death than even the most tame scene involving handcuffs and an enema bag.  Or in the case of my book, a character’s fascination with the fetish world — a dramatic device, rather than the point — that happened to get him framed for murder.

There is a significant difference between erotica and a perfectly logical sex scene in a commercial story, just as there is between pornography and the occasional penis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Pornography is sex without context, sex presented for the sole purpose engorging the glands of readers.  Erotica is different in that it does present context and setting, but titillation (is that a root word or a happy coincidence? hmmm…) is nonetheless the primary purpose — dare I say thrust — of the work.  It is designed to inflame the mind first, the nether regions second. 

Effective sex in commercial fiction, regardless of how explicit, always propels the story forward through the introduction of new narrative information and the shifting of context. 

If someone happens to get off in the process, so be it, that’s the writer’s call.  Just like it was Michelangelo’s call back in the day.  Such sexual moments are in service to the story, rather than the point of it.

It’s all in your mind.  Then theirs.

The best sex scenes are always, first and foremost, about desire.  They are about the forbidden coming to fruition, fantasy coming to reality.  They are about minds rather than motion, a triumph of emotional style over biological substance.  If you want to spin your reader into a frenzy, make sure the sex in your story is a culmination of needs buried deep within the emotions and dark recesses of the psyche, rather than the inner regions of their loins.

Regarding my my 2004 novel Bait and Switch, I’ve received emails from women telling me that chapter 29 was the most erotic thing they’ve ever read.  Not a stitch of clothing was removed, it was just a conversation in the back of a limo between the student and his supposed instructress in the art of seduction.  The tables turned, the student became the master, and the woman… well, let’s just say she was speechless.

Sex as a flesh-driven act can be exciting, but it’s almost always common and therefore easily boring.  Sex as a mind-driven frenzy is a hard drug, one that requires not a single frame of nudity to light up a reader’s imagination like a Times Square Christmas tree.  Set it up and then close the bedroom door.  Leave your reader in a voyeuristic state of denial, forcing them to play the scene out for themselves.

There’s a reason the romance genre remains lucrative and eternal.  Because the sexual tension that resides at its core is just that.  Just make sure what ends up on the cover doesn’t violate the sensibilities of your grandmother, who, history has proven, continues to have a thing for Fabio over blindfolds anyday.

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Filed under other cool stuff, Write better (tips and techniques)

What You Need to Know about Landing An Agent

As a writer who hasn’t had a new novel out in a few years, people tend to ask me what I’ve been up to lately.  As if they assume there’s nothing happening here under the bus.  I tell them about Storyfix, and they say, “oh, so you’re writing a blog.  But are you working on anything?”

Yeah, I’m working on the rest of my writing career.  Right here.  I hesitate to call this a blog — there’s nothing at all wrong with blogs, by the way,  it’s just that my ambitions for Storyfix exceed the scope of the word — it’s an instructional resource for writers.  An entire body of work about writing and publishing, delivered in 700-word bites.  Something I intend to build into the best site on the internet for novelists and screenwriters.

As I look over the oeuvre of Storyfix thus far, two things strike me.  First, in seven weeks we’ve released 38 “blogs” directly attacking the challenges and issues facing writers, and in less than two months.  It’s already attracted hundreds of subscribers and allowed me to guest blog on some of the most established writing sites out there.

In my spare time I’ve written the new ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters,” which releases this week.  I’m not shy about saying this: I hope you’ll buy it.  In a discipline that’s been written about for decades, there are exciting ideas and strategies here that are completely fresh and new.

The other thing: I haven’t talked much about agents.  In my workshops there are always folks who want to talk more about selling their writing than evolving it, and I deflect that because it’s the most profound cart-before-the-horse scenario imagineable.

And, to be honest, it’s an entire workshop in its own right.

But it’s time.  Because you do need an agent.  That is, if you want to sell a novel to a major New York publisher, or if you want your screenplay to even get out of the envelope you use to mail it.  It’s a non-negotiable fact.

This isn’t rocket science.  I’m on my second agent, and along the road to the bookstore (and back) I’ve studied how agents and writers come together.  So I’ll be succinct.

First of all, you need to understand your ambitions for your work.  If you’re targeting small presses, academic publishers or a Publish on Demand solution, then you actually don’t need an agent.  But you do still need to know how to pitch your work… more on that in a moment.

Agents all say they’re looking for great new talent, and they publicly lament that they can’t find any while many post “not accepting new clients” on their websites.  All of that is a smokescreen.  If you can get to an agent — any agent — with a great project, and if you can present it well and wrap it in a cloak of cache, you stand a chance of hooking up.

The best way to land an agent is through a referral from an existing client.  In other words, somehow you need to get a writer who is represented by an agent you’d like to approach, — which for most new writers is any agent at all — ask them to read your stuff, and if they like it pursuade them to contact the agent on your behalf.  That’s precisely how I landed my present agent.

Agents, however, are like publishers in more than one way.  They’re both looking for the next Harry Potter, and they are both tiered professions.  Which means, there are New York agents having lunch with publishers and each other, and there are regionally-based smaller agencies that phone it in.  The latter can sell you into the business, but there’s no comparison to someone who gets invited to all the right parties.

The next best strategy is precisely how I landed my first agent, with whom I worked for 16 years.  Agents attend writing conferences.  At most of them you can book a 10 minute “pitch” session — that’s right, face-to-face — which is your make-it-or-break-it opportunity.

This leads us to the art of the pitch, itself an entire textbook of structure, content and nuance.  For another day here on Storyfix.  For now, though, let’s assume you know how to pitch you work.  What happens then?

The agent will ask to see a partial manuscript.  A chapter or three.  Only rarely will they ask for the entire manuscript.  At the moment you deliver that sample — agents for screenplays will ask to see the whole thing, or at least a treatment — you are swimming with the sharks.  Writers are constantly frustrated that agents don’t get back to them, either within a promised timeline or at all.  Or worse. months go by and then, upon inquiry, the agent can’t even remember meeting you or having heard your pitch, much less consenting to read something.

That’s happened to me, too.  The utter arrogance and incompetence of it is incomprehendable.

We’re stuck with that.  And despite the cold blooded truth of it, it remains the second best approach.

The third best strategy, and it often works, is to write a killer query that presents you and your work and asks if they’ll give you a shot.  This results in the same best-case outcome: they’ll ask to see your work.  And again, welcome to the shark tank, where manuscripts are consumed like chum.

You should consider all three of these approaches.  At the end of the day, though, an eternal truth comes back into play: it’s all about the work.  About your story.  About your craft.  And, at this stage, about your ability to succinctly and pursuasively pitch it, either face-to-face or in written form.

By the way, a more detailed how-to on pitching is in the new ebook (Tip #89).  I”m just sayin’.

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Filed under getting published