Sunday, September 21, 2014

Twisted: Can a story go too far?

Decisions, decisions

This is what you get when you
can't decide! RAW MEAT!

As writers, we are making decisions constantly. When one of our characters asks, "What's for dinner?" we can't say, "I don't know," like we do in real life. We have to decide what the meal will be, how to describe it, whether or not the character will even get to eat it.

We have to make decisions about sentence length, word choice, the structure of our story, chapter length, hell, we even have a multitude of things to pick from when organizing chapters. "Do I want parts and chapters? Do I want to put Chapter One or One or 1? Can I quit now? No one said writing would be this hard, damn it."

Then there are the bigger decisions, the dark things, the creepy things, the things that dwell in the recesses of our imaginations that want to claw their way free and bleed all over our pages. These things might be violent, scary, sexual, dastardly, racist, sexist, bigoted. They may be the moments we censor because they make us uncomfortable. Should we write about those things? If we are supposed to write the truth, if we are supposed to capture moments that are honest, do we leave the graphic stuff out for fear of being too gory, too gross, too perverted?

No one can make the decision for you. Just like the tiny details, these big moments are ultimately up to you. There are some questions you can ask yourself, though, that might help you make the best choice for your book.

What's your genre?

If you're writing cozy mysteries, you won't include graphic sex or violence. Cozy readers have certain expectations when they pick up your book. If your cozy mystery features a sexually active prostitute, they'll probably put your book down and find another that meets the requirements for that genre.

If you're writing fantasy, you have to consider a different set of expectations. Same with sci-fi, romance, thrillers, horror, et al. Think of genres like hashtags on Twitter. They help people sort a large amount of information into categories that are easier to browse through. You don't want to plop a violent fight scene in the middle of a contemporary romance. Your readers will throw your book across the room.

What is the purpose of the scene, word, image?

Don't go there, girlfriend. Or boyfriend.
Or gender-neutral friend.
Sometimes you come to a spot in your story where things get boring. Your characters are practically sitting around picking their noses and something exciting needs to happen, stat! "I know," you think. "I'll throw in a graphic sex scene. People like sex, right?" If the element is going into your book for no other reason than to liven things up, then it's not going to read authentically. It's never good when a reader throws your book across the room and yells, "Susie Q Character would NEVER sleep with the butler!" If you add a scene for titillation, then your readers, if you have any, will get a lot of exercise tossing your books into walls.

Does the scene move the story forward?

This is important. If the scene doesn't move the story forward, then it shouldn't be in your story, easy as that. If the sex scene doesn't have any purpose beyond getting some yum yum nibble time in your story, then you need to cut it out. (If you need some sex scene insight, check out our blog post: Sex Scenes Are Hard (Part One)

I hate it when I get spleen juice on my
chopping knife. Sigh.
This goes for your bloody serial killer chopping up his victims, too. If the dismemberment of a group of choir boys is only in your story because you want to show your serial killer is EVIL as of the DEVIL, then you need to rethink it or cut it. It shouldn't be in your story unless it's moving things forward, unless it's giving the reader insight into the character, unless it's showcasing a game changer. If it's not doing those things, rip it out as ruthlessly as your serial killer would rip out his former science teacher's spleen. 

Why are you putting the scene in your story?

This is a good one to explore. Why do you want to write about a character being mutilated? Raped? Cussed at? Discriminated against? What's the message you're sending to your audience? Be careful that you aren't adding an ultra-violent scene in your serial killer story because "people will expect one." Be sure you aren't adding a rape scene to your urban fantasy because "it's a good way to add emotional depth to my character." (If you want to read a good article about this subject, check out what fantasy writer Jim Hine's has to say on the subject in his article: Writing About Rape.)

There's a difference between adding a scene for shock value and adding a scene because it's integral to the story. If you're unsure, let someone else read it, someone who is willing to be honest with you. Be honest with yourself. 

None of this is to say, "Don't write that terrible thing." It's to urge you to consider why you're writing that terrible thing. It might need to be said. It might need to be told and you might be the only person honest enough to write it. Just be thoughtful and deliberate when you do write the hard thing.

What are your readership goals?

There's always someone who ruins
it for everyone else. Stop leaving
your sperm swimming around, please.
Violence, gore, knife-edged honesty about historical horrors, sex, rape, and all the other controversial topics are divisive. They are controversial for a reason and you need to realize that you are shrinking your audience whenever you make the choice to add certain things to your story. If you have graphic sex, you will lose a portion of the population who hate sex scenes or find them offensive. If you have graphic violence, ditto. There are stories that become popular in spite of their controversial subjects or because of a particularly graphic scene. But they are the exceptions. Are you okay with fact that there will people who won't read your story specifically because of that one scene or that one subject? There's value in having a smaller, dedicated readership. Ultimately, you have to think hard about what your expectations are. 

Can a story go too far?

Sure it can. For someone, somewhere, your story will go too far. Justine by the Marquis de Sade went too far for me. Just look at a banned book list and you'll find a myriad of books whose authors went too far for someone. 

The question really isn't, "Can a story go too far?" anyway. The question is, "Is this the story I need to write and if so, how can I tell it true?"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beta Readers Are Superheroes

You've just typed the words “The End”. Your masterpiece—weeks, months, sometimes even years in the making—is finally finished. Sure, it might not be the next Great American Novel, and it may never win any awards, or make it to the number one spot on the New York Times' Best Seller List. But you're enamored of it and you think it has potential.

So what do you do next? Send it out to agents and editors at one of the big five publishing houses? Upload it to Amazon or CreateSpace? Shell out some cash to Lulu or BookBaby?

Nope, nope, and nope.

The next step is to corral some friends—bribe them with chocolate cake or brown butter cookies or a really nice chicken tagine with lots of harissa, if you need to—and offer them the chance to help make history, to become so important that their opinion will alter the course of the world. Ask them to become Beta Readers!

What's a beta reader, you may be asking. A beta reader is an author's bestest, most important friend in the publishing game. Even more important than an agent, an editor, and yes, even more important than the guy who fixes computers. A few good beta readers are the difference between life and death to your book.

You see, they see the manuscript in its rawest form. They see your book naked, in front of one of those dressing room mirrors with that awful lighting that exposes each little flaw, each little bump and curve and divot, and they help decide which parts need liposuction and which parts are perfect just the way The Maker created them.

But how do you find the sort of beta readers who will be honest with you, who are capable of giving you in-depth insight, who can say more than, “I liked it. It was good.” That, my friends, is what I'm here to tell you. I'll share with you the secrets of finding the perfect beta reader.

  1. Ask friends who are writers. Most writers are capable of a certain level of deep critique; they know what they like, they know what works and what doesn't, and they're able to express those opinions in a way that is constructive.
  2. Ask friends who are heavy readers. I'm talking about that one friend who reads like three or four books a week. They are clearly intelligent people, capable of thought, and probably know whether your protagonist is a rip-off of Jefferson Nighthawk, or if your antagonist is too perfectly evil to be sympathetic with your readers.

Once you've assembled your group of five to seven readers, hand over the manuscript. But don't just give it to them, pat them on their head, and send them off. That's a big mistake. Tell them what you need. If you're looking for help making sure your plot is air-tight, tell them that. If you're looking for ways to ensure your female characters pass the Bechdel test, tell them that, too. Admit to them which parts of your book are weak and ask them how to shore them up. Ask them to tell you which were their favorite characters and the ones that can die in a fire. Ask them to go over your baby with a fine-toothed comb and pick out the nits. And then give them this list of seven questions, designed to sharpen their focus. Feel free to add or take away your own questions, based on your own needs.

Then sit back and relax. Your beta readers have got this. Enjoy the feeling of knowing that you're well on your way to becoming a published author and that you're doing everything you can to ensure your story is the best it can be.

And try not to stress out about finding the perfect editor.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Five Ways to Give Birth: Writing Kids as Characters

So much of childhood isn’t what most of us would consider child-appropriate. A child’s world can be, often is, as dark as an adult’s—or darker. Here are five ways to put breathing children into fiction meant for grown-ups.

1.       Remember that every child is his or her own person.

“My dad can eat six pizzas!”
“Yeah, but my dad is stronger than Superman.”
Like any character, any child is shaped by his or her experience, whether it’s peace and shelter, horrific violence, or anything and everything in between. Make them people first, and little people after.

2.       Think back to your own childhood.

“You’re ruining my life!”
Do you remember that thing you wanted for Christmas so badly? That one thing that would’ve made your life absolutely complete and you’d never ask for anything ever again? Yeah?
You didn’t get it, did you? How intense, how gripping, was that disappointment? The world was ending! Capture that when you write children.
Or maybe you did get it! You lucky cuss. How excited were you? Oh my goodness the world was wonderful! Capture that emotion.
Children feel so deeply and broadly. There’s no end to the well. For the most part, they’re just learning about emotion, their own emotions. Try to bring that to the page.

3.       Talk to some kids.

“Mommy, I doed it!”
“Yes, you did.”
If you’re a parent, you already know this. And if you aren’t, and you’re lucky enough to have kids in your life, have the best conversations you can with them. I’m not advocating asking them questions like “What if you were sold into slavery?” What I mean is, you’ve got to enter into the conversation with the interest of listening, really listening, to them. Hear the different ways they speak and the ways they’re learning language. Hear what they talk about. I promise, they are interesting. You haven’t really lived until you’ve discussed robots with an eight-year-old.

4.       Give them grown-up problems.

“I’ll get us some food.”
This is actually true of kids’ fiction too. Let them deal with things out of their depth—as you would any other character. Challenge them as people. Thank goodness, they aren’t real, though it ought to feel as if they are.

5.       Give them justice.

“The Queen had saved the little Prince. And they loved each other, whatever came after.”
This is truer of some kinds of fiction than it is of others, I suppose, truer of some works than others. But give them as much as you can, for your own peace of mind and your readers’. Poetic justice is always appropriate when writing about children, or so I believe. The world is screwed up and real kids deal with terrible situations every day, often with no recourse, no punishment for the wrongdoers, nothing.

It would be better if no child had to go through anything like what real (and fictional) children go through. At least in fiction you can give every little one a chance.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sex Scenes Are Hard (Part One)

For this month's Scriptorium roundtable posts, we asked a question of each writer. You probably clicked to read this article because of the title. We will not disappoint you. This month's question is:

Do you write sex scenes? Why or why not?

It proved to be a hard question. Ah ha. Ha. Ha.

Fiona Skye says:

I don't publish sex scenes.

It's not because I'm a prude. It's not because I'm a hoity-toity artiste who's too good for that nonsense. And it's certainly not because I don't think a little sexy time doesn't have its place in fiction.

I don't publish sex scenes because fading to black and allowing the readers to use their imaginations to picture what my characters are doing is more titillating, more tantalizing, more intriguing than any black and white description could be. There is no way that a sex scene, with its awkward euphemisms for body parts (and occasional outright vulgarities), myriad sighs and moans, and ridiculous adjectives to describe an orgasm, is better than what the reader has experienced in his or her own lives. The reader taking from that experience and applying it to what he or she is reading is what really makes my work come alive.

And okay, maybe it is a little because I'm a prude. I can't help it. It's how I was raised.

Matt Green says:

I have written hardly any sex scenes! I tried my hand and writing erotica once and never revisited it. That's not to say I do not greatly enjoy it, though, and attempting to put together another one intrigues me.

As with all things, my first steps are going to be research! My fiance has provided me with an excellent selection of texts to broaden my understanding of how works of quality are accomplished. I also plan to solicit recommendations from other Scriptors, as I gather they are also more well-versed in the genre than I am.

If I do this right, what I produce will incorporate intriguing, well developed characters who have crazy hot sex.

Jen Ponce says:

Why did I start reading romance books when I was 14? For the sex, of course. Sure, some of the books had great stories, neat history facts gussied up as story, great characters that I loved, but mostly it was the sex. My mom knew it, too, and tried to ban them from the house. Yeah, like that worked. 

I expanded my reading to other genres but I have to say, I still think the best books have the best sex scenes. What can I say?

I've read a lot of sex scenes and because of that, I know what I like and don't like and can even articulate it. Here, let me show you: 

I love a great sex scene. Sometimes I love them because they are funny, clumsy, silly, or downright outrageous. I love them when they are perverted or sweet, crass or emotional, one paragraph or ten pages long. 

I don't like sex scenes that are timid or apologetic (unless it's the characters being timid and apologetic, that's different.) I don't like sex scenes that don't fit the story. If both characters are balls-to-the-walls perverts and they have sweet sex, I ain't buying it (unless it's part of the story/character development.) And the inverse is true as well. Don't give me two uptight sticks who don't even curse and then have them act out a scene from Deep Throat.

The important thing to remember when you're writing sex scenes is to keep the story moving forward. Ask yourself:

How does this develop my characters?

How does this move my plot forward?

What can I reveal in this moment, that changes the relationship between these two people?

I will read sex all day long if the story moves within it. Don't be shy. Let your characters bump uglies. Let me in there to see what happens. Show me who they are with their clothes off. Don't shut the door unless that's the genre you're writing. (If you write all day long about people hacking each other's heads off and then you shut the door on the sex, I shall be highly annoyed with you. Just saying.)

So, do I write sex scenes? It's probably obvious by now. I do. I enjoy writing them as much as I love reading them, both sweet and sexy, naughty and goofy, and all the stuff in between or on either side.

M.A. Ray says:

Yes, I write sex scenes.

I write them because they’re an important character tool; how two (or more, or fewer) people behave with each other when clothing is optional shows who they are in a very fundamental way.

I write them because I generally don’t hold back on the violence, and don’t see why I should hold back on sex. It’s just naked people. Nobody’s losing limbs or lives (we hope). 

I write them because they turn me on, and I want to see if I can tweak my readers’ nethers like I tweak their tear ducts.

I write them because they’re difficult for me. A well-written sex scene is a thing of beauty. If I can do that, I can do anything (or so I tell myself). It’s a challenge.

I write them because I like to read them, and I want to write books I enjoy reading. That's flat.

Do you write sex scenes? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments! And tune in next time for more answers from the Scriptors!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

5 Things to Write When You Don't Know What to Write

Say you’re a new writer. Like me.

And say you never had the bug to write every single day like the “real” writers. Say maybe you even went a few years without writing any fiction at all, because you decided you weren’t good enough. If you were good enough, after all, you’d be finishing stuff. You’d have the instinct and it would come easily.

Then let’s say something happened. A tragedy, perhaps, something that seared your soul shut and you had to find a new way to let things out. And you thought maybe you could write about other things, about stories or poems, about other people’s tragedies until your pain would disappear.

And it did. It worked. You rode the wave of a writing high for a few weeks and words came spurting out of you like bad blood, flushing out pain and sorrow and leaving you feeling thin, dizzy, and light, but deliciously, ecstatically happy.

When the last spurts dry onto the page, you feel some life rushing back into you. You begin to be able to walk straight again. Chin up, eyes bright. Best of all, you have a purpose for your life. This is what you were meant to do.

You are a writer!

One problem.

You have no idea what to write. For a while, you fool around with extending the pain you were writing through, but it falls flat. That’s not who you are anymore, and even when it is, it’s not really getting you anywhere. You want to write something amazing, something to win prizes, earn money, and most importantly, something that you can show to your girlfriend.

But what?

You sit down in front of the keyboard and peck away at a novel. You get fifteen thousand words or so, but it’s not good enough. If Tolkien and Rowling got together and had a baby, and that baby grew up and adopted a cat named Butcher, and then the cat got sick and started hacking hairballs all over the living room, then one of those hairballs was your novel.

What to do? Well, you know what to do. It’s rule one.

Write more. Write every day. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when you’re short on sleep or when you’re out of coffee or when you had too much coffee. Write when you’re sad or lonely or angry or happy or lustful or tired or bored. Get all those things down on paper. Write a million words and then you’ll be a “real” writer.

But you still don’t know what to write!

First of all, you don’t have writer’s block. That’s not a thing. That thing is banished from the Scriptorium. Writing is always hard, it’s never easy, and there’s no excuse for not doing it.
Here are a few suggestions for things to write.

1. Flash Fiction

This is my go-to for dry days. Pick a topic, a funny idea, a dream, or even a piece of art and sit down to make a brief story out of it. How brief? Well, that’s up to you. I like to aim for 1800 words. This is one of those times when outlines are unnecessary. Just start an idea and see where it takes you. 

You are a sculptor in front of a block of marble. Start chipping away.

For some great examples of Flash Fiction (as well as a popular place to submit one) check out,

2. Six Word Stories

Six word stories: writer’s sleeping pill.

If you’re interested in becoming a word master, six word stories are an excellent exercise. Think of a concept and try to condense it to six words. TRY. Here are some of my favorites.

His flowers were my last goodbye.
Luckily for me, a vegetarian dragon.
This empty page: my only friend.
Temperature rises. Oceans flood. Death awaits.
Wanting to know all, I listen.

3. Backstory Blurbs

If you have a captivating idea for a novel that you can’t get out of your head, but you can’t seem to get it out of your head, try writing backstory blurbs.

Get a blank sheet of paper and write the letters A-Z down one column. Next to each letter, pick a topic relevant to your story. It’s okay to skip Q and Z and X if you like – there’s not going to be a grade. Each day, until you think of something else to do, pick one of those topics and expand it. Pretend you are writing an encyclopedia for your world. If you get all the way through, start over again. This stuff may be useful someday.

4. Narrative Outlines

Another trick for a gummed-up novel-writing pipe is to clear the way with a narrative outline. Pick an unlikely character in your story and tell the whole story from their point of view. Tell it quickly like a bored conversation or tell it slowly with a lot of detail. Make it their dying confession or their interview for the local paper. Anything to help you visualize the story in your head.

5. Bad Poetry

When all else fails, write bad poetry. It’s a required part of the writing process, so you might as well get it out of the way. I’ll close with one of my own bad poems, so you don’t feel embarrassed about yours.

::golem depart::
from earth he came
as strong as steel
but soft as sand
he learned to feel
taught to fight,
he fought to win.
then saw the right
and saw the sin
he saw the blood
that dyed the clay
the blameless girl
who died that day
with tears of mud
and moans of sod
he fell to earth
he flew to God
from earth he came,
no heart or soul,
but learned to feel
and paid the toll
broke bread with men
who broke his heart
to dust returned
Golem Depart
There you go. That was one of mine, written on a day when I had nothing else to write. Now it’s your turn. Go on, pick one of my crazy ideas and run with it. Better yet, make it a blog post and link it here for all of us to enjoy!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We Are Paper Tigers Full of Weird

With great talent comes great weirdness.

People like to imagine that weirdness is all manic pixie dream girl nonsense, or playing the banjo at two in the morning, or having an extensive collection of Transformers in your basement lined up so that they appear to be engaging in a combined car wreck/orgy.

But sometimes “weird” looks a lot more like “broken,” and it’s a kind of broken that you are confident that 0 percent of other people ever go through. The kind that makes you walk away from your art, your admirers, and your life and huddle in a corner and cry. Creation takes a certain amount of weirdness, but the same wild energy that creates fine steel from ore can dump a toxic slag into our lives. You wield strange forces when you populate your head with visitors who pull on your time, your attention, and maybe even your temper.

So above all else, this rule to writing must apply: Be good to one another.

I’m a guilty little shit when it comes to this. I try to make apologies when my big ogre fists pop some novice writer on the nose for no good reason, and I freely confess, I love a good fight now and then. But when it comes to someone else’s art? Be good to them. Encourage and do not destroy.

In the indie writing community, this rule applies times one thousand. We ought to all get secret writer tattoos on our asses together: “Be good to one another.” Because, let’s face it, what separates the indie artist community from top shelf sellers is that the top shelfers seem to have it locked down (more or less).

Consistent sellers are selected for their consistency and hard work that spans years and years, which is what it takes to crack the business and to stay in it. Or so I’m told. But for the indie guys? We are selected for the reverse. We are the quirky moon howlers and the ten-years-to-write-it obsessives and we ought to all be careful about following the advice of Stephen King too closely because, shit, that guy has it together in ways we never will.*

The truth is, we lack a crucial ingredient that makes for the sure-fire best seller, and for a lot of us, that ingredient is consistency. Or, well, sanity. Our Weird might make us wilt into a ball of compressed terror at the notion of a deadline; or it might leave our skin thin like sieves so that trolls can suck the blood out with a kiss; or maybe our lives are just a wreck of unpaid bills and overdue projects that overflow a wireframe waste paper basket until we live under its shadow.

Whatever the case, we are paper tigers. There is talent and potential here, but we break so, so easily.

So. Find your closest indie author friends and defend them, nourish them, love them for what they can do—and soak it up in return. Because who else will?

*Except for the part about not becoming addicts. Listen to him on that. For serious, be quirky, but don’t wreck the organ in your skull that makes the light and the thunder happen.