Tag Archives: #amrevising

Friday Links for Writers 02.21.14

BlackrockIn months when carving out writing time is challenging, I remind myself that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while working full time and raising 2 boys as a single mother, by writing before they woke and after they went to sleep.  Doesn’t make it easier, but busy months take constant self-coaching to get it all done.

This week, I was thrilled with a provocative question from a friend that led to a new way of looking at a key scene. The upside of fighting for time to write is it is that much more satisfying when the work that comes out really rings true.

The week’s work has also led to discovery of some great links online, which is your benefit as I share this week’s Friday Links for Writers.  As always, let me know in the comments which links resound with you, what you’d like to read more of, or share your own links.  Best wishes for a great writing week!

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Sally Clements: How to Write a Synopsis

Among my writing friends, several are somewhere in the process of submitting novels as part of their winter goals.  This article by Sally Clements, on the Irish Writing Center’s website, does a good job of addressing how to write a synopsis as part of the submission process.

Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered

Along the same lines, this round-up of querying advice from Chuck Sambuchino (at Wendy Tokunaga’s site) answers some more interesting questions about query strategy.  Bonus: click the link in the first paragraph for another 10 answers.

Style Sheet: A Conversation with my Copyeditor

Here’s a good resource on copyediting basics, whether you are trading manuscripts with a beta reader or your novel is in the hands of your publisher’s editor, or you are providing copyediting services to other writers.  This article at The Millions includes a chart of standard copyediting notations and an interview with writer Edan Lepucki’s copyeditor.

Clashing Tones: a peril when we spend a long time writing a book

It’s time to share another great post from Roz Morris. I like this post on shifting tones within a manuscript, because it addresses a revision issue we not have heard others name, point-blank: the need to read for consistent voice or tone in a novel that has been written and revised over long stretches of time.

Interview with NBCC John Leonard Prize Winner Anthony Marra

I’ve said before that I am very excited to see the success of Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, as I first ran into Marra in an online forum around the time he would have been writing it.  He has received nods for several national and international awards, and has just been awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s first ever John Leonard Prize.  Here is an interview with him from the School of Writing at the New School.  So many of us could relate to Marra’s inspiration: “I wrote this book as much as a reader, as a writer.  It was the kind of book I wanted to read and it wasn’t there yet.”  I love the revision process he shares: “I retype everything.” As soon as he finishes a draft, he prints it out and retypes it, revising with new eyes as he goes.

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What About You?

What writing goals are you working on this week, or what other priorities interfere with your writing time?  My best wishes go out to several of my regular readers who have been sharing their February goals and helping to keep each other motivated.  Feel free to share yours in the comments, below.

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c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

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Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary — then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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Friday Links for Writers: 09.06.13

At work writing. c Elissa Field

At work writing. c Elissa Field

Writing this week has felt like a covert operation: completely unexpected details of my characters or scenes in reaction to the most unexpected inspiration, in a week I hadn’t planned to have much time to write. You can’t complain about that.

What’s been great about this week’s writing is the way that deepening discovery of inner character details has re-envisioned and empowered a couple moments I hadn’t thought much about. Developing and nuancing character is so much about discovery.

By chance or serendipity, this week’s Friday Links shares a series of articles on approaches for character development, starting with a review of a favorite author’s new release. As always, let me know what resonates for you in these links, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite reads from the week in the comments. Best wishes for a great writing (and reading) week!

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Someone, by Alice McDermott

What the writer of this review says about Alice McDermott is exactly the reaction I’ve had to McDermott’s strongest work. I was equally stunned by the same short story (nugget to her coming novel) in the New Yorker, in a way that ties to the kind of quality I seek in writing. “Her sentences know themselves so beautifully,” the review says, and touches on the ways McDermott accomplishes deeply nuanced characters.

What’s Next: How Do I Look?

This post by Cate Levin at She Writes begs a question I’m sure she is not alone in asking: how much description is needed of a protagonist? In first person POV, no one wants to force in details like, “while tossing my long strawberry blonde hair…” Cate shares her own thoughts, and invites conversation on what other writers find matters in describing main characters.

Knowing What’s Real

Keeping on the same theme: Cate Levin’s question reminded me of this guest post by Khara House on writer Gerry Wilson’s blog (see the next link for more on Gerry). In asking whether it’s necessary to describe your main character, Cate was really raising the question: what details really reveal the character, more than mirrorlike description? Khara’s take on this is lovely.

Own the Emotion, Then Give It Away

Sharing the post by Khara, I came across another of my favorite posts that builds on this same theme. In this, Gerry Wilson makes a fabulous connection between ballet training and writing in the need to fully occupy and use emotion in developing character.

Indiegogo: Bestseller with Chuck Adams

Okay, so this is an Indiegogo fundraising page for the book Bestseller, currently assembling advice on how talented writers can become bestsellers from editor Chuck Adams. Fundraiser or no, the page includes several short videos with Adams sharing behind the scenes stories of editing, rejection and one of his great acquisitions, Water for Elephants, giving an interesting view into different aspects of the industry.

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More on Writing Character

Are you on a roll and want to read more about writing (or revising) richly developed characters? That’s actually a favorite topic on this site. Here are a few favorites:

Along with a fabulous group of writers, Elissa Field is a Founding Member at Wordsmith StudioFab Writing Community

It wasn’t pure chance that I shared with you writers Khara House and Gerry Wilson. Gerry, Khara and I (and lots of those reading this post) are part of a fabulous writing community called Wordsmith Studio. I hope sharing Friday Links or other posts on my site is useful to other writers and readers, because there is a great bond when writers support one another — and this is exactly the community Wordsmith Studio members have found together. You can find more about our group’s activities by watching the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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Friday Links for Writers: 08.30.13

Summer Green Market at Rockefeller Center, 2013. c Elissa Field

Summer Green Market at Rockefeller Center, 2013. c Elissa Field

Heading in to Labor Day is a bittersweet time of year, as end of summer and back to school signals lots of creativity around here at the same time my long writing days of summer come to an end.

Not that writing stops, but it fits into a different time strategy.

What never ends is great reading, and this week revealed some great resources for writers. Here are a few, below. As always, feel free to let me know which links resonated with you and what you’d like more of, or share your own links in the comments.

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But I Digress

In this great post at Beyond the Margins, Nichole Bernier takes on the effective use of flashbacks with a list of questions to ask to determine when digressions are effective and when they impede the narrative.

Freedom and Structure: Matt Bell’s Seminar on Revision and Rewriting

In this post at Grub Street, writer Susi Lovell shares nuanced advice for revision and rewriting that she took away from a Grub Street seminar with Matt Bell. Beginning with the advice, “Don’t try to ‘tackle the whole story’, he said. ‘Take one element at a time,’” she shares the lightbulb moment that came in revising her work.

How Not to Write a Novel: the Quiz

I’m sharing the link to this quiz just for fun — but the concept behind the full book, How Not to Write a Novel, is certainly valid. Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman offer a different perspective on writing advice by sharing 200 classic mistakes and how to avoid them.

14 Writers Handwrite Their Writing Advice on Their Hands

Need a boost? Take inspiration from one of these 14 writers and the advice they’d give if distilled only to what fit on the palms of their hands.

Guest Blog Post Strategies for Writers

This post at Galley Cat offers link to Jared Dees’ Book Launch Guide, with 33 solid strategies for authors to let the world know about their book. Get started with the strategies given for pitching and writing guest blog posts.

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Writing Process: Where Do You Write?

writing ct 1-

One of the cheery questions that writers seem to like trading experience about is, “Where do you write?”

There are those who are passionate café writers. There are those who post long reflections on their experience writing at a weeklong or month-long retreat where trees block view of the closest human being. There are those who write on subways. There are those attending conferences this summer who will imagine long hours writing in the Adirondack chairs on a grassy mountainside.  There are those with full fledged home offices or equally meaningful cubbies with small totems that inspire them to write.

One of my most productive places to write, ever, has been sitting in bed in my house, which is that kind of new construction where the master bedroom is huge and airy, on the second floor with a bay window looking over treetops so it feels like sitting in a treehouse. Chi moves so well through that room that I am neither bored nor distracted.

More often, as single mother, I am in the corner of the sectional sofa in the family room in the middle of my sons’ action, so I won’t someday hear them in therapy saying their mother spent their childhood with her nose in a laptop locked away in her room. I’ve written in other busy places: conferences, courthouses, schools, train stations, airports.

I’ve written in spectacularly beautiful places — on a cliffside balcony looking over the Mediterranean in Positano, Italy; in a beautiful hotel room; at famously photogenic beach. Few places are as beautiful as that empty chair in the picture with this post, where I am sitting right now on the sun porch of my mother’s house in Connecticut, looking out over her gardens as she and my son weed.

ard na sidhe blogBeautiful places and busy places have often left me with ideas to write from. My current WIP began with an image from a gorgeous mountain lake in County Kerry, Ireland.

But, ironically, my philosophy about “where to write” is the same as my philosophy on buying notebooks or pens for writing: the best writing places are equivalent to or more boring than the writing you’re doing. If you’ve ever had writer’s block, then never buy some heirloom-gorgeous writing journal because you’ll be too afraid to write a wrong word in it. I’d rather a boring composition notebook, any day.

As beautiful as this seat is in my mom’s sunroom, I’ve spent more time photographing it and writing about it than working through the list of revisions I’m supposed to be making.  As we get ready to drive back south tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll lament leaving this beautiful location many times. But the truth is, it does me well to dip in such beauty and then retreat to the quiet where the words I need to work on are the main attraction.

As a final thought, I think the best writing seats have good chi — air flows readily so your ideas feel free to unravel — yet are not in the main line of that energy. For example, that seat pictured in the window demands the action of looking out onto the world, in the traffic flow of the main door. In reality, these last two weeks, I’ve written better when snugged into the sofa set back in that same room, with a similar view and still in hearing of all the house’s activity, but sheltered behind the main traffic and action.

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What About You?

Is your writing space important to you as you write, or are you portable in your work? Do you have rituals, like favorite quotes or icons on your desk, or other ways your writing space gets you going? What would you change, if you could? What would you recommend writers look for or avoid in a good writing space?

If you’ve posted about your writing space in the past, feel free to leave your link in the comments.

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Novel Revision: Can Literary Fiction be Hot?

hotfiction

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

So what am I working on next, in this series on mid-process novel revisions? Okay, confession. Maybe, while working on novel revision this week, I caught myself admiring Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And maybe I rewatched Sense and Sensibilities, catching my breath for the 99th time over Colonel Brandon’s silent anguish of love. Maybe that had me thinking about hot main characters and romantic plots.

But then, just maybe, as I reread parts of my novel which has matured into its thematically-layered 4th or 5th draft, I stumbled upon a love scene between my main characters and cringed.

For a complete list of articles from this Novel Revision series, look below.  But today it’s time to take on love scenes.

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Love Draws Us In

If you’d asked me what this novel was about during first drafts, I would have called it a love story. It opens with the prattling of a toddler conceived in a love affair between the main characters. I feel a loyalty to that love spark, even as growth in the story has come to focus more on the layers of conflict and the larger theme of civilians avoiding violence during war.

That early feeling of falling in love with this broken main character is a central integrity to the story that doesn’t leave me.  Key transitions in plot hinge on the moment they met, the moment they were drawn to each other, the moment they first, well, you know, and whether they are in love, and how that changes their original response to conflict. The love tension between my MCs is the fun part of the story, and a powerful inspiration that keeps me going from draft to draft.

Tough, my current revision process tells me.

How many first dates, even well described, would make it through the rounds of novel revisions? As I re-read these original scenes and decide how to edit love into the final drafts, I’m left wondering what role sex plays in literary fiction.

Purpose of the Sex Scene Fits the Purpose of the Genre

Sex plays different roles in different genres, of course, and thinking about the purpose of a genre helps to establish a guideline for the purpose sex scenes would serve in a book.

If I were writing romance fiction, the purpose of my sex scenes would be to evoke a romantic experience for the reader. For a mystery or thriller, sexual tension might accelerate the tension of a crime or create the more mysterious, romantic motivation for a detective or spy. For young adult lit, sexual activity is handled carefully to depict first experiences crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore likely to focus on hesitation or anticipation, and small details a young person would remember of a first kiss or holding hands.

In each case, defining the work’s purpose is a good starting point in knowing what love scene details will advance a story without being off kilter or over the top.

What is the Role of Sex in Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is less easily defined than some other genres, so I was left wondering at the role of sex in my WIP. In many cases, literary fiction is a hybrid with other genres, containing elements of romance, mystery, historical, coming of age, or science fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass addresses the effective crossover between literary and commercial fiction.

What is generally the case in all literary fiction and its hybrid/crossover varieties is that heat and passion can’t be the only purpose of love or sex in a story. Dang. I can’t just say my MC is a hottie and they are so in l-o-o-o-ve. The passion has to fuel or depict a larger purpose in developing character and advancing the conflict.

Of course, there are numerous literary best sellers where sex is not present. In his essay, Sex in Literature, Adrian Slatcher references Julian Barnes in saying “‘the author feels a commercial obligation’ to write about sex. But there have been several literary bestsellers to involve almost no sex at all.”  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, there is the non-sexual tension of his main character not sleeping with the prostitutes he befriends. In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, love is brotherly and era-appropriate dating scenes involve sitting on a blanket at the beach or arriving at a nanny’s house to pick her up for a date.

But sexual passion is fuel in much of literary fiction. Looking back on stories that continue to resonate as classics, it’s often a romance at the heart of the story that we remember. The fact that the romance between my main characters is important to my own interest in my WIP tells me that I need to give careful consideration while revising, for this to remain a strength in the final story.

Sex Reveals Character and Conflict

Literary fiction tends to be centered on character transformation, and sex can be a powerful symbol of where a character is in conflict. Sex is symbolic of inner conflicts of being trapped, captured, free,  released, linked or united, and often serves as transformation in the plotline of internal conflict resolution.  This can appear as outright sexual activity and its outcomes (think Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), desire that fuels action without explicit sexual activity (Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence) or the state of desire restrained from action (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Romantic desire can appear to stand alone as a character’s inner conflict, but is generally symbolic of something more.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice, where the character’s internal conflict is resolved through acknowledging mutual love and marrying, that desire for love is integral to a larger theme of defending personal identity within the external conflict of England’s old property laws. Sex is an inherent theme of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but serves to create tension and release of tension and violation within a greater theme of war.

As much as love or sex can be used to signal transitions in inner conflict, it is also used in opposition. Sex is the external act of internal emotion, and tension arises if the external act (or lack of action) is in conflict with what the reader knows about inner emotion. Intense emotions are created when a reader knows the character’s desire but the character does not act on it, as in Kasuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which exudes a sensual tension partly because the butler never breaks his reserve.

Similarly, sexual behavior or loving actions can create a dramatic contrast to depict a character’s inner torment. In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the scene when soldiers walk to a brothel while on leave is the antithesis of sexy, establishing through contrast how nightmarish their battle world has been and how dislodged the men are from emotion. The presence of sex without love or compassion is often symbolic of inner dysfunction, as Hemingway often used to signal the disembodiment of humanity after the shock of war. Reams of literary fiction include sex as sickness or sex in its dysfunctional state, such as The Kite Runner, The God of Small Things and The Color Purple.

Not Choreography

One of the simplest rules I’ve heard in knowing how to write sex in fiction is that effective sex scenes do not involve choreography. If you could replicate the movements and positions based on what is written, then it’s too much.

Like any other sensory details in successful fiction, sexual details have to serve the story, not just paint a picture. In that sense, I have been really resistant to say my main character is beautiful or describe the dramatic eyes I imagine for her love interest (yeah, that picture up top comes close). My story is not advanced by the characters being attractive.  Beauty is only meaningful when it reveals what the character perceives as beautiful, or beauty in relief against themes of pain or darkness. Hot details need to be something more than just what we, as writers, find hot in a mate. As with any character traits, they should reveal the character’s fear or hope or history or greater desire and what keeps them from finding happiness. For my female character to notice scars on my male character’s knuckles is more meaningful (and less ridiculous) than to say he has nice hands.

Often, the novel’s sexual tension is best achieved in description of a nonsexual event. In Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the hottest sensuality comes not from deflowering of the mute wife, but in the nights she sneaks to feed the wild tiger meat from her husband’s stores.

But let’s say we do want to communicate that the scene was hot.  The details to establish hotness still need to fit the novel’s theme, advance its conflict, and fit the voice. Only rare novels would benefit from Victoria’s Secret outfits and naming of body parts and positions. Words that are hot in imagination or real life — like lips and fingertips and more — often turn ridiculous in writing (and euphemisms can be even more ridiculous).

Successful sex scenes often evoke sensuality with words unrelated to the body or actual sex. Even in overtly sexual novels, like The English Patient, sexual details are often odd, like sexualizing the divot at the base of the woman’s throat. Hardy described blooming mushrooms in the woods rather than describe Tess’s virginal skin in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has his characters wait a lifetime to reach fulfillment in Love in the Time of Cholera, and description of that scene involves reference to constipation.

Revising with a Mind to What Makes Sex Scenes Work in Literary Fiction

It seems the key is to understand the purpose or message of your own novel, and know your story’s internal conflicts, to understand which kind of sex (or lack of) scene can work within your story. Sex is one of the choices my characters make in carving out their odd path toward resolving their inner conflicts, and their scenes together reveal love and hope and passion and parental intentions, but also dysfunction and imbalance and fear.  Revising feels like coming at the scenes from an angle rather than head-on, working to deepen character and conflict, understanding how each detail reveals the progression in character transformation and not just heat.

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What About You?

Have you been conflicted in writing or revising love in a story?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

If you want to read more on the subject, I admired this great post by English writer Isabel Costello: Sex Scenes in Fiction.

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Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation

tree tops.

We talk a lot about prioritizing writing against other claims on our time. Travel has its own challenges for a writer working to maintain daily writing or editing goals.

On one hand, you’re awash in stimulation while away from the usual daily pressures. If it’s a vacation, time is often not an issue.  I say that while luxuriating with the dogs on the quilt covered sofa of my mother’s sunroom, looking out to her gardens. After weeks of 8-hour (or more) writing days, it’s shocking to have this much time on my hands.

On the other hand, travel presents its own set of distractions and obstacles. At home, we don’t mind pushing ourselves to be industrious. But how can you keep productive while surrendering yourself to time off with family or seeing fabulous sites?

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6 Strategies to Keep Writing While on Vacation

1. What Did You Say? 

At my family’s Michigan cottage growing up, we went out to swim at sunrise and came back inside when lightning bugs lit the trees.  As with many vacations, time was not an issue. But conversation is.  I can’t lose myself in novel revisions while in conversation with my mom about a turn in her business, or chatting with the sister-in-law I haven’t seen in 3 years. I might carry my work with me, but it loses out to listening to my niece explain the story behind her doll. For writers traveling with family, my suggestion is to know one activity during every day when no one will be talking, and be sure to have your work with you then. This may be a train ride, lying by the pool or while others are reading or showering.

2.  On the Move.

At home, I was working with a printed copy of my novel in a binder, a kit of colored markers and pens and post it notes, my coffee and a laptop… which covered the better part of my couch and adjoining table. I won’t be successful on vacation if I need to spread out like that. On the other hand, I traded documents by email the other day while 30′ off the ground, harnessed to a tree-side platform between legs of a zipline obstacle course, using the phone in my back pocket (pretty much at the point that picture was taken of my sons, above). I can take either my laptop or binder and write on the train into the city, or sitting on the bent limb of a tree fallen across the hidden tidal beach we hiked to yesterday.  The key to keep working while traveling is to have work in multiple, portable formats. Think ahead to where you will be and make sure you have some portable piece of your work with you to work on. Depending on how much I want to carry, I can take just my binder or laptop, or a smaller printed section with a pen, or just a notebook, and I always have my phone. Don’t overlook photography, which is great for capturing a thought more quickly than writing.

3.  Look, No Hands!tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

You have the time, no one’s talking to you and your ideas are flowing… but one obstacle travel tends to throw at writers is that it keeps eyes and hands unavailable to write. Take the 22 hours I spent with my hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, driving up the east coast last week. Holding hands while leading a kid through New York traffic, climbing rocks, swimming in the pool, cooking dinner… all of these come to mind as activities one just can’t write through. In some cases, like during that drive, audio options help make the most of that time. Use Dragon Dictation app on a smart phone to dictate revisions or new material. The app transcribes your spoken words, then you tap to email it to yourself. Or, use the time for reading by downloading an audiobook or podcasts from literary magazines or NPR.  Just as often, when the interaction with family or ocean dip or simply marveling at the world justifies dropping all thoughts of writing, throw yourself into it whole-heartedly, without guilt or preoccupation with the work. Claim time later to jot your thoughts when the moment is over.

4. Hold That Thought

Travel can be great for writing, as new settings and experiences and overheard conversations can be unique inspiration to start something new. But, wow, that can be a nightmare if you’re working to stay focused in a story you are revising. Last thing I need right now is for my war-toughened main character’s voice to suddenly lapse toward describing gardens and tea and children playing with plastic boats just because that’s my vacation view. To avoid cross-contamination, be flexible about what you work on. Use a notebook to record those new inspirations for later. If you feel like vacation demeanor is shifting your voice, work outside your main document, so you can decide later if the new material or revisions are a fit. Or, make an effort to write only during staked time, so distractions from the vacation world are reduced (see 5 & 6).

5. Stake Your Claim

There are vacations where you really drop everything to surrender yourself to the holiday. Foreign travel can be like that. This last week, I was visiting with my brother and his family after a long time apart. When that’s the case, don’t regret not writing or waste energy struggling to fit it in that would have been better spent experiencing your travel.  But, otherwise, when you have a daily writing goal, let your traveling companions know this and stake the claim for that time. Ask others what the schedule is each day and agree on the time you will spend writing.  If you don’t want to draw attention to the writing, disguise it as a daily trip to the coffee shop.  But you may be surprised to find someone else relieved for quiet time to read or check email. Buddy up with that person to avoid feeling antisocial. I am writing this morning while my mom catches up on business calls and email, and my sons play a game. Claim time and space with minimal distractions, but where you won’t feel like you’re missing out (see 1 or 6).

6. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down

When all else fails, unless it’s your honeymoon, use that last hour of the day when everyone is falling asleep. My first days on this trip, I fell asleep with my laptop on my knees.  It’s prime time: no guilt, no distractions, less influence from the stimulation of the new environment. If this is your plan, watch out for those days when rock climbing or wine tasting might leave you shot by bedtime. If you’re an early riser or it’s not the kind of trip where you have to be out the door early, try writing while everyone else wakes.

That said, I’m due to take my work with me to sit by the pool while my boys swim. One last warning for travelers, to be read in a spectral voice (a la Edgar Allen Poe reciting the Raven): whenever you are traveling with your work, remember to protect against loss by leaving backups behind.

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What About You?

Are you trying to keep up with writing goals while traveling or entertaining company this summer?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Recent posts:

Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Filed under Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother