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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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October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? I’ve previously shared these two:

But Tuesday I came across another blog with a challenge near to my goals this year: character motivation.

In her 10/14 post, “Making Motivation Matter,” Writerlious blogger E. B. Pike shares insights and an exercise she gained from a Writers Block conference she attended in Louisville. Follow link to her post to read her full explanation of the challenge as presented to her in a workshop. I can’t resist trying it here.

The challenge (quoted from the Writerlious blog):

1.) Write down your character’s name

2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible

3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?

4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.

5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.

6.) You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

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Of all my characters, Michael Roonan is most likely to meet the bar of high stakes motivation. Let’s see:

  1. Michael Roonan.
  2. Roonan wants: the happiness his parents had.
  3. He cannot get what his parents had because of a tragedy he witnessed that caused him to take a life in self-defense, as a boy.  If he did not get over the tragedy, he would just grow up in isolation. Not yet a big stake.
  4. That violent act caused him to become alienated in fear.  He isolated himself to protect those around him but a loyal friend tried to rescue him.. Once the friend is involved, stakes are raised, as he is now focused on extricating the friend from guilt, beyond any hope of extricating himself.
  5. In an effort to correct the problem, he upheld his father’s paranoia about needing to protect the family and avoid violence. But the more he sought to avoid violence, the more he escalated it, and two members of his family are killed. Stakes raised twice: believing in his father’s integrity and lives lost.
  6. His involvement in violence is exonerated as “self-defense” — yet he becomes increasingly aware of his own flawed perceptions, so that his innocence or damnation hinges on whether his father’s values and paranoia were accurate. Stakes raised: loss of innocence, loss of faith, damnation. Against these, Roonan sees death as easy.
  7. At the moment Roonan judges himself damned, resigned to death, he is confronted by the unexpected birth of his own son — now faced once again with his original wish: for the simple happiness of family.

I’m not surprised to have full stakes for Roonan, but am curious to run the same test on the female protagonist, Carinne, as development of her character has been my focus in recent revisions:

  1. Carinne
  2. (Should I be honest and say I stalled out to even say what she wants?) Initially, for herself: love, acceptance.
  3. If she did not get love or acceptance for herself, she might just withdraw into herself. No big deal. She’s in company with half the planet, perhaps. Not yet a story.
  4. She then meets Michael Roonan. They are kindred in resignation to their individual isolation. Seeing it in each other, they fight to keep the other afloat. She begins to rebel against her own resignation, at the same time she becomes accomplice in his escape from the man pursuing him. She becomes a part of a mission to keep the man safe, which essentially parallels her own need to fight for herself. Story spark.
  5. She has fallen in love. There is the moment when things could turn and go well, but then Roonan is killed.  She believes he survived, but is told he died and she is sent out of the country.  At this point, it is interesting, but as far as her motivation, it’s still kind of “so what?” – she could move on with a new love, I suppose. He could be the exciting bad boy that got away – but not necessarily high stakes.
  6. She is pregnant and has a child (the first pages open with that child digging in her garden). She had been willing to give up on finding Roonan for herself, but won’t give up once it’s a matter of finding her son’s father. Stakes are raised the day he comes home asking who he’s supposed to take to the daddy party at nursery school. Ding!
  7. Once Roonan is found, the son’s need for his father to survive and be part of his life provokes the resolution, as living happily is at odds with the father’s need for atonement.

What a great exercise for identifying where motivation is clear and where it is still pedestrian.  I love romantic motivation, but am suspicious of it as the sole motivator, so had been questioning Carinne for some time. She is compelling, but not if her only motivation is loving Roonan.

What’s interesting in breaking it down is it pinpoints a truth I caught last spring: Carinne is not the real protagonist; the son is.  Carinne is essentially a stand-in for the son for much of the story.  While we might be moved by a love story, the son’s need for a father trumps the mother’s romantic motivation.  It is the son’s desire (and mother’s desire for his well being) that drives the story.  Once I hone in on that, how easy are the questions to answer.  What does the son want? A father. What will happen if he doesn’t get it? Parallel to the tragedy already modeled by the dad: questions of his manhood, his integrity, his identity, his worth. Resolution of that one desire addresses the needs and desires of his parents, as well.

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I applied Writerlious’s list to a finished draft, but a key point as it was presented to her in workshop is to take the time to define your characters and their motivation before starting to write.  For all those of you contemplating NaNoWriMo next month, this is perfect time to do just that!

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October is only halfway done! Jump in on one of these challenges, or share your own questions for developing story.

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October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche — but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy

Notes of scene and personality of my character, scribbled in the margins while reading Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.

My writing hours are all about budgeted time — hours or whole days declared for fiction, versus blocks of time commanded by the kids, teaching writing, client work, and the daily grind.  While teaching usually yields hours every day for me to write, the last two weeks were forfeited almost entirely to the end of the school year.  As Friday was finally the last day of school, it was interesting to see what writing work I would land on, in my first days of freedom.

My main goal for summer’s longer hours focuses on the two novels I am revising

That work craves larger blocks of hours for rereading drafts. I last left off rereading the more finished draft, Breathing Water, needing to decide between two voice options, then delete some random chunks in the middle, and fix any broken transitions. The second novel, Wake, is still working its way to becoming a first, full draft, so there is a veritable carnival of piecing together the written portions, replacing original ideas with newer scenes, now curious to chart plot points and track how effectively the story unfolds.  Revision to three short stories is also on target for the summer, as it has now been nearly 10 months since the last time I submitted work.

With those clear goals, you’d think the first free days would have been spent rereading those drafts.   There will be days that I do exactly that.

But today was messy. Messy to wake from the deluge of the past weeks: blearily checking email, voicemail and social media to see what was going on while I was otherwise occupied.   Messy to face the end of year mess my house becomes, with two wild monkeys disguised as sons co-habitating with me.

Messy to greet the twine-ball of pent up ideas my writing mind is today.  Apparently, a mind antsy with ideas, made to wait days to write, does not reach its turn ready to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Writing Character

Today’s writing job, instead, is to re-open the copy of Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions that I’ve been reading for the last week. I attended a workshop with Hood in Miami, last month, and bought the book from the Books & Books table at her reading.  While the workshop focused on novel beginnings, Hood’s lectures and responses to workshop questions shared a wealth of advice, both from her own experience and drawing on advice from dozens of other fabulous writers she has worked with or learned from in her roughly 30-year career.

In that vein, a single line of advice she offered (how to avoid writing flat characters, when writing those most like yourself), piqued my curiosity to read her book, which explores the full gamut of how to write characters with complex and authentic emotional resonance.

As I pick it up today, however, it is not to continue reading, but to face the rampant notes I scribbled wildly in the margins when reading last week. The picture accompanying this article is modest compared to the extended scene scrawled in the margins stretching 6 pages, between headings for “Anger” and “Confusion.”

Creating Emotional Characters:  Hood on Anger

Ann Hood begins the section on writing Anger with a quote from Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost: “‘Outrage, combining as it does shock, anger, reproach, and helplessness, is perhaps the most unmanageable, the most demoralizing of all the emotions.'”

Applying this to writing, Hood says, “Anger has so many gradations, so many levels, it is indeed — for the writer at least — one of the most unmanageable emotions.”

The paragraph following this lists words for the myriad levels of anger people experience (from pique, ire and exasperation, to madness, wrath and ire), with the warning that writers “tend to write anger as a flat or simple emotion, something closer to rage.”

By contrast, she says, “What makes the emotion so interesting — and challenging — is that it has many different levels.”

This idea that emotions are not one-dimensional, not predictable, but composed of complex gradations, unpredictability and even contradiction, is key to her advice throughout the book.

Messy Writing: Scribbled in the Margins

Roonan, the enigmatic male character in my draft, Wake, is confused, guilt-ridden, self-condemning, but rarely angry.  Still, a single line at the end of those three paragraphs in Hood’s chapter on Anger triggered a newly-revealing scene.  Roonan cascades through layers of emotion, through the tiers of family history he has previously misunderstood.

In one fit of messy scribbling, I tied together a series of tropes that have been disconnected references scattered through the story.  Roonan now connecting the inner (and reflexively external) conflicts signalled by his father’s racing motorcycle, his mother’s reaction over evidence of a death, memory of cleaning up to protect her, facing the day his brother died, discovering the bag of locks his father had left stashed beneath the bed… the guilt he lives with keying back to a single, fierce moment of fury, in which he sees himself fulfilling everything he had set out to avoid.

In my head, I understand each of these elements, but in this baby-draft, they were as-yet unwritten.  Magically, this dam of understanding burst in reaction to a single line at the end of those 3 paragraphs of Hood’s advice: “Sometimes anger leaves you sated.”

So it is that today’s job is to return to those notes, transcribing them into the “add-on” document I keep in Word as new material to be added into the draft. The work may remain messy after that, or may fall into a neat pattern of revision as planned.  The key, I’ve found, is to respect where my head is — most of all, to get all fresh material recorded, so not lost, before pushing myself back to revision.

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More on Character, and Hood’s Advice on Beginnings

I’ll share more of Hood’s advice on character, as well as advice on writing beginnings in coming posts.  If you have specific questions (such as Hood’s advice regarding the challenge of writing characters similar to yourself), let me know in the comments.

Want more?

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

 

Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon Powells    Indiebound.org

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