Perhaps you just finished work on a successful project and wonder what sort of book can match the emotional impact of the one you just finished. Or maybe you are amid fielding rejections and wonder if you’re writing in the wrong genre.
There are variations of the questions you face, but they all boil down to two words—what next?
The question assumes you don’t have a contractual or strategic answer, like a book deal or an ongoing series. If so, you may come to envy the freedom that my central question implies.
This might not be good advice from a marketing perspective. Projects are best staged to build and support previous work so that the release of a new book is a marketing tool for your backlist. But doing something different is great for your writing.
My poet wife once announced her attention to write a villanelle—a nineteen-line poem with two recurring rhymes. (The one you know is Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.) I asked her why on earth, anyone would ever do such a thing. Her answer was simple. “It’s new, and I need to stretch.” Enough said.
If you have more than one book in you, then you may have a project that you’ve been keeping on a back shelf, waiting for the skills to pull it off. Or perhaps you have a vague idea of writing the perfect book. Or the Great American Novel. Or maybe just a book that matters.
I had three such books in mind. One was a multi-chapter, multi-character novel that I couldn’t wrap my head around in any structural way. The second was an epic historical. The research and plotting seemed beyond my abilities. The third book had a touchy theme that might prove too contentious.
Then my folks passed, one after the other. That kind of loss will give you pause.
I started writing when I was twelve. More than five decades had gone by, and I still hadn’t written the books I was meant to write. So, I got busy.
If you have bucket list projects that have been on the back shelf, let me encourage you to get busy yourself.
If, on the other hand, you have a desire to write an important book but don’t know exactly what that looks like, here are a few ideas to help your thought process:
The search for your next project can improve your skills, put a checkmark on your bucket list, or change the world. Don’t let the search frighten or frustrate. A world of possibilities awaits!
When I was a kid, I jumped at the chance to accompany my younger sister into the library in the small town where our grandparents own a summer cottage.
To her, libraries were a place where the next adventure waited, another era came to life, or more facts could be added to her ever-expanding brain. To me, the books were colorful, stout or thin strips lined up alongside each other like soldiers at a military parade.
New Library in China.
I hated to read or write, and libraries were quiet places that became boring about ten minutes after I entered them. I was dyslexic and I no more thought reading was fun than I did going to the dentist.
So why did I go each time with my sister? Because there was a Dairy Queen right next door and I knew that my patience would be rewarded with an ice cream cone.
My grandmother was a librarian with a master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan. Her passion for reading seemed to hold a higher place than her love for her grandchildren. Libraries were placed where I had to behave or risk a stern grandmotherly look from over a pair of thin spectacles.
Fast forward 15 years and libraries are among my favorite places in the world. I’m still dyslexic, although thanks to tutoring and learning tricks, I no longer hate to read and write. As a matter of fact, I love doing both of those things. A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled to read an article in The New York Times about new libraries all over the world, becoming tourist attractions
A few of the new stunning and interactive libraries that have opened recently around the world are serving as tourist attractions. No longer are libraries stodgy places where the nerdy introverts go to find excitement. Now libraries are destinations where the community can make a movie, 3D print artwork, attend a concert, use as an office, or even catch a train. And, oh yeah, you can still check out a book.
The University of Michigan still offers a degree but no longer is it called Library Sciences. Now a student can earn a Master of Information Science. Librarians are dealing with information in all its meanings and interconnectedness in this shrinking world. Courses such as Programs, Information and People; Data Manipulation; and Opportunity have replaced the Dewey Decimal System in the Age of Intelligent Machines. Librarians are now data management experts. We're a long way from the librarians and research assistants from my grandmother's day.
I wondered about the libraries in my area. About 80 percent of the 200,000 people who call the Fort Collins area home have library cards.
“Still and always libraries are a gateway to knowledge and culture—that gateway just looks different than it did 25 years ago. No longer are books the stand-alone purpose of a library. Today we’re all about partnerships, networking, reinforcing cultural movements, making sure technology is freely available to everyone, (though we still check out books--they just might be in digital form),” says Anne Macdonald, Adult Services Librarian at the Harmony Library Branch of the Poudre River Public Library District.
Today, visions of ice cream no longer fill my head when I think about a trip to the library. Now I wonder at our luck at being able to freely walk into a library and walk out a slightly different person. Within those walls are housed hundreds of thousands of stories, the intellectual and passionate pursuits of millions of people, and the key to unlocking our imaginations.
Yes, you should.
I've worked in libraries and bookstores for about two decades. I have seen that, from a reader perspective, we are a novel-centric culture. I'm not sure if people feel that short stories are beneath them or simply forget about them as a literary medium. For aspiring writers, it may seem wise to move straight into the longform opus. Why waste time on short stories if there's not much readership for them?
1. For one thing, they're short.
We may as well start with the obvious. My first novel took five years from its first draft to final publication. There were a lot of rewrites in that process. And feedback, rejection letters, periods of creative simmering, etc. That's not an efficient way to build up a writing portfolio.
In that same window of time, I had opportunity to publish four smaller pieces of fiction and several articles. The number of short pieces I had written that remain unpublished is more than I can recall. While writing a long work is an exciting endeavor, short stories are a great way to get your foot into that publishing door.
You can go through an initial draft, love it, hate it, threaten to end your writing career and become a banker, re-evaluate everything, draft five to ten rewrites, fall in love with it all over again and decide that you're a genius all within the space of a week! What's not to love about that?
2. Short stories function as a literary laboratory.
Just A Few Drops of Metaphor And A Dash of Hyperbole. Let's See If It Explodes.
Short fiction offers opportunity for experimentation. You can tell a story from the perspective of a wine glass. You can rewrite an old fable through a series of newspaper and magazine headlines. You can infect your prose with bizarre and innovative techniques that won't destroy months or years of work if they don't work out. Or perhaps they will work out, and you've got something you can implement in your longer narratives.
3. Short stories also function as an idea warehouse.
Numerous are the authors who grew a novel out of a short story. In the case of Ray Bradbury, several short stories set to a fictional timeline became a "novel" in The Martian Chronicles. Not every literary seed will germinate, but you may be surprised which ones take root.
A file of your own short stories is a great tool for overcoming writer's block. Maybe you have some that will never see publication. Disassemble them for parts. Take the best ideas out of them and utilize them somewhere else. You can reuse your own creativity to give your novel some momentum in a slow chapter.
Short stories can serve you well even if you never plan to publish them.
4. They're more relevant than you may realize.
This is an age of brevity. While our novels may be comparable to movies, a short story is like a Youtube video. You can read them in a single sitting, share them with friends, and lose an afternoon to a good collection.
There are several avenues by which you can deliver your short fiction to its readership. For one, literary journals often feature brilliant short fiction to a wide readership.
Here's a list of fifty you may consider:
Or, here are another thirty digital journals:
If you're into competitive brackets, there are some excellent short story contests including those sponsored by NYC Midnight (a great source of feedback, by the way).
And there are some high-quality compilations as well. Such as this lovely edition recently curated by the Northern Colorado Writers:
Bradbury challenged writers to write a new short story every week. Could you hold yourself to that for a year? Imagine the ideas you'd have!
What's a short story you'd like to write? Let us know in the comments. And then go write it! (What's it going to take you, a few hours?)
A trope, according to Miriam-Webster, is “a common or overused theme or device.” In movies and literature, examples include:
· the ugly duckling turns into a beauty queen
· the commoner inherits the crown
· the dead bad guy isn’t dead after all
· the race to the airport
· the hooker with a heart of gold
Not all tropes are bad. In fact, some are required. For example, in a romantic comedy, you better have a “happily ever after” ending. In a classic buddy movie, the friends must part, but eventually reunite with a stronger bond. A superhero must always have a nemesis.
· The Unlikely Hero of Humble Origins: Frodo in The Lord of the Rings; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Harry Potter in the Harry Potter books.
· The Love Triangle: Katniss again, having to choose between Peeta and Gale; Scarlett in love with both Rhett and Ashley in Gone with the Wind; Claire is in love with both her husband Frank and the kilt-wearing Jamie in Outlander.
Poking Fun at The Power Walk.
· The Power Walk: When a group of misfits becomes a team, and they walk toward the camera in a line, often in slow motion. Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers.
The challenge with tropes is that they can be a crutch or, admit it, lazy writing. Is your bad guy purely evil? No one is. Give your villain three dimensions. Make them interesting! Are the high school cheerleaders in your story sort of brainless? Why not give them good grades? Is the football player mean to the skinny nerd? Why not make them best friends instead?
Tropes are tools, so good ahead and use them in your writing. Just be aware that if you decide to use one, use it well.
For more on tropes, see these websites:
12 Overused Story Tropes in Modern Literature
6 Absurd Action Tropes You Never Noticed and Can’t Unsee
The Good, the Bad & the Overdone: Tropes in Fiction
The trope I loathe the most is the homely-person-transformed-into-a-beauty-by-taking-off-their-glasses one. Do you have any trope pet peeves? Add them in the comments!
June of 2016 I was accepted into a novel editing workshop in the Aspen Summer Words Conference. The faculty member for my workshop was George Hodgman, a former editor at Houghton Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, and Vanity Fair. He had recently published his award-winning memoir Bettyville.
When I walked into the condo where the workshop was being held, there was a pudgy man with a large face, wrapped in a leopard blanket. He didn’t talk to the six of us right away, but looked at us, even through us. A wave of discomfort fell on the room. What had we gotten into.
“Well, here we are, aren’t we?” he said in a Missouri-drawl that held both irony and sarcasm.
That week George was grumpy, sweet, hilarious, and erudite. Once we got used to his unique look and thought process, we began to relax and really listen to him.
When I walked into the condo where the workshop was being held, there was a pudgy man with a broad face, wrapped in a leopard blanket. He didn’t talk to the six of us right away, but looked at us, even through us. A wave of discomfort fell on the room. What had we gotten into?
That week George Hodgman was grumpy, sweet, hilarious, and erudite. Once we got used to his unique look and thought process, we began to relax and really listen to him. His humor was dry with perfect timing.
When my assigned critique partner suggested that I should delete a death scene from my novel, George leaned over and whispered in my ear loud enough for the entire table to hear, “Ignore him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, this is one of the best death scenes I’ve ever read. You delete it, and I’ll be very irritated with you.” Then he wagged his finger at me like my mother might.
He met with me for half an hour before breakfast so he and I could talk, just the two of us. He gave me thoughts on my novel, suggested a list of agents to query, and wrote me a letter of introduction to an editor at St. Martin’s Press he thought would connect with my work.
When he got a text from his airline that his flight might be delayed or canceled out of Aspen, he leaped up from the table and paced back and forth, throwing his hands in the air panic-stricken that his dog would be alone. Who would take care of his dog for this extra day? His agitation paused our workshop that last day and as he called friend after friend to find someone to dog sit. His voice grew louder and louder as person after person turned him down. In his leopard blanket, he ran his hand through his hair as he marched back and forth.
After the workshop, he would call me from time to time to check in and see how my writing was coming and offer advice and talk about challenges that he faced in his work, such as Hollywood’s on-again, off-again flirtation with developing Bettyville into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine. We also became Facebook friends. George posted often raging about politics in the nation and his beloved Missouri. There were copious pictures of dogs who had been abandoned and needed homes.
Lately, his posts were one of two things: beautiful villages from around the world or stately homes or historic buildings now dilapidated and forgotten to time. George Hodgman collected images of vulnerable animals he couldn’t adopt, abandoned, and forgotten structures he begged people to save, and breath-taking scenes of places he would never visit.
Saturday, July 20, George Hodgman took his own life. I found out Sunday morning, and the breath left me. I knew that he lived with depression, and I could tell when he was struggling because the images of sad-eyed dogs, Victorian homes with broken windows and peeling paint, and picturesque Italian seaside villages stopped. But the photos would always resume, and I knew he was back to himself. They won’t appear anymore.
As a writing faculty, he took a little getting used to. But that effort was paid back a hundred-fold. His memoir was open, raw, humorous, just as he was. He will never know what his time and attention meant to me as an insecure writer, hoping that I had some work with merit.
Meeting other writers at conferences and retreats is a precious commodity and I am fortunate to have experienced his expertise and mentorship.
DS: It's time for another fake interview with a deceased author. Today, from his grave in Poet's Corner, we have the inimitable Charles Dickens. Mr. Dickens, you are known for painting the modern picture of Victorian England, creating larger than life characters that still capture our imagination today, and publishing your stories a chapter at a time in serialized formats. Thank you for being here today.
CD: We are so very 'umble.
DS: Charles, you had a difficult start in life. Your father went to Debtor's prison, and you had to stop school and work in a factory at the age of twelve.
CD: I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously, and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulty of my life... I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a vagabond.
DS: Is it fair to say you were a reader at a young age?
CD: Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected. Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.
DS: Agreed. A love of writing naturally follows a love of reading. In spite of your limited education, you went on to write multiple novels, short stories, and kept a journal for twenty years.
CD: I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.
DS: You were diligent. I must admit, I struggle to focus on one idea at a time.
CD: An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself. Curiosity is and has been from the creation of the world, a master-passion. To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can be had.
DS: So, perhaps carving out some time to muse on our ideas and let our stories have a chance to tell themselves to us is the best first step.
CD: The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.
DS: But you also mentioned punctuality and diligence. Can you speak more to that in the life of a writer?
CD: Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him. Rattle me out of bed early, set me going, give me as short a time as you like to bolt my meals in, and keep me at it.
DS: And I'm sure your chapter by chapter deadlines didn't hurt either. Well, you were prolific! But it's one thing to write a lot. It's another to create captivating stories and memorable characters.
CD: There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.
DS: Yes, there are. You are known for your characters. How do you set about inventing a human being?
CD: A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. The mysteries of this machine called man! Oh, the little that unhinges it, poor creatures that we are!
DS: Some of your characters are imperfect creatures, indeed. How would you describe their emotional journeys?
CD: Life is made of ever so many partings welded together. The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day. But there is prodigious strength in sorrow and despair. The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.
DS: And you were quite an advocate of children in your day. Due in no small part to your time working in a factory.
CD: In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to, but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high.
DS: You were also known for your dastardly villains. Shall we talk about those?
CD: If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.
DS: How do you make a good villain?
CD: Vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess!
DS: I believe Shakespeare said something similar. So villains may not be villains in their own eyes. How do they become villains?
CD: We forge the chains we wear in life. Pause you who read this and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. When a man bleeds inwardly, it is a dangerous thing for himself; but when he laughs inwardly, it bodes no good to other people.
DS: As for your heroic characters, they are often ordinary people with the power to form strong bonds with one another.
CD: A loving heart is the truest wisdom. Family not only need to consist of merely those whom we share blood, but also for those whom we'd give blood.
DS: Excellent. Do you have any other words of wisdom to share with our community of writers?
CD: Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, are all very good words for the lips.
DS: Uh… Yeah, I guess they are. Well, thank you so much for being here.
CD: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It's that time of year. Temperatures are up, so perhaps are tempers. Motivation is low, so is our energy. Some of us are traveling or just getting out of doors but it's a truism of being a writer, we must read books.
A lot of them.
Piles of books. You know you have them as well. The Japanese have a word to describe this phenomenon: Tsundoku. The owning of books in number beyond your ability to read them. The Beard and I shared this condition.
When the time came to merge our libraries, we faced a tough decision. We owned over five thousand books between us. Sure, it was easy to get rid of duplicate titles (we had many). Then we moved on to books we had already completed (some read more than once, cough cough, maybe fewer than fifty times).
And finally, because we don't have unlimited wall space, we had to figure out how to deal with our tsundoku.
In A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L'Engle described a house transformed from a multi-stall barn into a home with walls and walls of books. To this day, I'd love to live in a remodeled barn.
One for fun. Three for research.
I'll go first:
In addition to the stack in the photo, I'm STILL working through Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. And work is exactly what reading it is.
I've just started The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
I'm listening to Daemon by Daniel Suarez but let's just say I'm not in love with the narrator.
I just gave up on The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. To be fair, a lot of people have been raving about this book, including The Beard but I just couldn't do it.
In my queue, The Fifth Season (Book One Broken Earth), Red Waters (Book Three The Devil's West), and A Gathering of Shadows (Book Two Shades of Magic)
I've been finshing edits on two novels, so reading has taken a back seat. I can only mention three:
Karin Kaufman's More Adventures of Geraldine Woolkins (my sister's read-along story book for children).
Ellen Datlow's horror collection The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen.
and for comfort (of a sort), I revisited an all-time favorite, Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night.
Never one to pass up a bargain, I recently attended a free class taught by Trai Cartwright at the Old Town Library on World Building. I don’t write science fiction or fantasy, but since Trai was teaching, I decided to go because a) Trai is hilarious, b) she’s also an effective teacher, and c) I might learn something.
And boy, did I!
World Building isn’t just for sci-fi/fantasy. Any story we tell has to be set somewhere, and that somewhere needs rules. And for some genres, setting is much more than where or when the story takes place.
With Trai’s permission, here’s the low down:
Physical – geography, cities, nations, species, weather, physics, etc. This includes specialized physics, like magic and supernatural phenomenon.
Sensory – looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
Social – history, politics, religion, culture, class, language including dialects and slang.
Another aspect of your story is the fundamental 'who' of your character. Think about your protagonist, remembering that the protagonist doesn't automatically mean hero. Your protagonist is the character from whose point of view we experience the story.
How does your main character's position in society influence her motivation?
Is she trying to fix her world, or defend it?
Is she a champion or an outsider?
What is the point of conflict? Her faction versus an opposing faction? Her society versus another world? Her versus a villain from within her own world?
Like any other aspect of writing, for example, backstory, it’s easy to go overboard on World Building. Here’s how a writer can go wrong:
Going into too much detail. You only need to write about the aspects of your world that are pertinent to the story. You might have worked out the genealogy of the ruling class, but unless it’s necessary, your reader will get bored and, GASP, stop reading.
Now thinking about basics and ask yourself:
What do they eat?
Where do they sleep?
Who cleans the toilets?
Why is the ruling class in power?
What drives the economy?
Having an ornate society that has no connection whatsoever to the folks who grow the food/clean the stables/de-frag the photon torpedoes is just not believable. You may not have to cover the minutia, but some exploration can help flesh out your world.
Putting more effort into world-building than in telling a good story. Only Tolkien can get away with that. Include world-building to enrich the story, not to impress your friends.
“Should I add another species to Middle Earth? Flying Monkeys perhaps?”
I am noodling around with a new story. I think I’m going to set it in the 1980s in a small town like the one I grew up in. Should I bother with World Building? Heck, yes. I’ll need to study up on the politics of the times, popular music, social norms.
I doubt I’ll write about politics, but I better have a grasp of the basics from the ’80s to avoid making a mistake, like referring to the Green Party, which wasn’t founded until 2001. Or having my protagonist listen to alternative rock music, which didn’t really go mainstream until the 1990s.
The resurgence of '80s fashions isn't happening fast enough. Who doesn't want to see this make a comeback?
Researching the '80s might sound like a drag, but I also get to dive into the styles, which is going to be totally tubular.
For more on World Building, check out these websites
Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding
Charlie Jan Ander’s The Seven Deadly Sins of World-Building
Amber Mitchell’s Six Tips for World Building in Your Fantasy
Metaphors are a writer’s tool of the trade. We try to create more profound clarity for our readers and open their eyes to our point of view.
They can elevate our writing to soaring heights or anchor our words along with Prometheus.
Nothing delights writers like a metaphor that describes the writing process. They abound like Democratic presidential candidates on the debate stage (not a metaphor).
The most prevalent writing metaphor/simile is the “writing a novel is like giving birth” (again, not a metaphor) trope. As a human being who has delivered three children into the world (two of them back labors) and who has also written four books, I have made no secret how much I hate this particular comparison.
I’d like to point out those three offspring are all still breathing.
The Best One I've Heard Yet.
I’ve put my writing on the back burner the last month or so to tackle a sewing project. Go ahead and scoff, yes, I sew.
When said offspring were young, I made most of their clothes, all of their Halloween costumes, as well as creating a variety of home goods. I haven’t used my machine for several years, and I have a twenty-five-year-old serger never out of the box.
Son 3 moved out, leaving an entire room empty of purpose. It took the blink of an eye to transfer my sewing and craft impedimenta into the space.
After failing to find something to wear to a black-tie, evening wedding, I burned with the drive to make something formal. WTF was I thinking? You know darn good and well what I was thinking, “How hard could it be?”
In returning to a different kind of craft, I’ve finally landed on the perfect writing comparison.
Maybe you took sewing in secondary Home Economics class. You may have made a skirt or a backpack, or something that approximates a skirt or a backpack. You know how to sew a straight seam and how to read a pattern, so you figure you have what it takes to tackle a larger project.
An idea forms. You hunt through pattern books for something similar to your vision. You wander through aisles of fabric choices to customize your design. You have to break out the pattern pieces, cutting them out and ironing them flat so you can cut your fabric for the construction. You cut, you mark, you pin, and somewhere along the line, you start to sew.
I Picked Satin as My First Medium. It’s Like Trying for Dostoevsky on Your First Novel Attempt.
There are so many little steps along the way. Clipping seams, basting, ironing, fitting, and hemming.
You land on some facsimile of a garment and ask for feedback from trusted sources. And when that critique is honest and useful, you open a bottle of wine and salt it with your tears. Okay, that might only be me. And then, you take a pair of scissors to your creation.
I don’t recommend combining those two steps, but let’s face it, is it really a worthwhile project if you don’t breakdown into hysterics at least once?
You have to take a step back and give your brain some space to percolate. Now, you can go back to the project and start to rework the plan.
Not everyone is going to love your final look. That’s a given, but if you’ve nailed your measurements and the fit works, you may have something you aren’t ashamed to wear.
The more you sew, the handier you become at working through those little hitches. The fabric may pucker, your machine tension may need adjustment, and you may have to rip out a seam or two. Or three.
But that’s the process, and THAT is the best metaphor for writing I’ve come across. So, if you are thinking about writing a novel, man, woman, or child, hit the fabric store, pick something to make, and go to it.
You will absolutely discover how difficult it can be.
Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let's talk about you and me. You know you're humming it now, right?
My paying job is to write for the military. I know, the antonym of fiction writing (or is it?). In the course of reading a Navy newsletter, I stumbled upon a story too good to be true.
Never in My Life Would I Put Together Navy and Sky Penis.
Maybe you heard about this story on NPR or it popped up in your news feed. I was reading a Navy newsletter when I came across this photo.
Yes, two bored Navy pilots had sky-written a penis over Whitby Island, Washington, causing a ruckus. I chuckled of course, as one does when you see something silly, juvenile, and utterly engaging. Everybody thinks about sex; young, old, clown, president, pilot. So, how about our fictional characters? If they are above the age of fourteen, I’d say they would too.
What are your character’s boundaries?
In writing sex scenes, we undress our characters both literally and figuratively. When we’re naked, we are authentic, human, and vulnerable. Each one of us has things about our bodies we’d change or are embarrassed about, the same should be true of our characters. Sex in real life is never as it is in fantasy (in case my husband is reading this, it’s super close!) so how does it go in your story?
Recently I took a class about writing good sex scenes. It was graphic, slightly embarrassing, open, raw, and fun. First, the instructor read an excruciatingly awful, very explicit sex scene that was part ice breaker and part “how not to” example—basically a bodice ripper gone off the rails. Then he had us write our own awful sex scene.
My pen hovered not wanting to commit to the assignment. Then I loosened up and had a marvelous time letting the outlandish story flow. I will spare you and your loved ones the details and keep this PG-13 (wouldn’t want NCW to get in trouble with the FCC). I will say it was different from any scene I had ever written before and way more entertaining. I allowed my main character to do and want things that had never occurred to me before, but why not?
Several students read their work out loud, and the instructor used our own work to illustrate good (and not so good) literary techniques. Many found it a cleansing technique for writers to express humiliation and vulnerability in our own characters through writing about sex and perhaps cathartic in unexpected ways.
Don’t name specific body parts i.e., genitals. By using slang or clinical names, the reader is taken out of the story. Use fantasy. Most sex happens in our heads, what do your characters think about when they let their minds wander toward the erotic or forbidden? Don’t be cliché. Let your characters take a surprising turn. If your main character is a bodybuilder, perhaps he likes to luxuriate in a long bubble bath? How about a woman who studies her body in a full-length mirror daily and cries over her breasts that never fed babies but she picks up men at a bar who she can suckle (OK, again I just made that up so don’t judge). What the instructor suggests is to use the topic of sex to let your characters surprise you.
Check out some sex scenes that work.
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