In the last post, I talked about how often we encounter sex in books, and why that might be. I promised I’d be back with more sex, and that’s a promise I’m keeping. See, sometimes I am reliable. 😉
One of the interesting things about sex scenes, besides the fact that they’re sex scenes, is that authors all have their own way of going about writing them. To know why they are written the way they are (and why I choose to write mine the way I do) you need to first determine why the scene is in the book. Sex scenes are like any other detail in a book; they should serve a purpose. Sometimes they are written only to titillate — sometimes as a natural progression of a relationship. What is the difference between a sex scene meant to arouse and one meant to show the culmination of a relationship? How can you tell the difference between erotica and romance?
You’ll often see people commenting in reviews that a book is or isn’t erotica or romance. There’s a lot of crossover here. I was a librarian for many years, so I’m basing my judgement on years of reader’s advisory to make my genre calls — it’s the most familiar to me and was the most reliable way for me to find the right book when someone asked for a recommendation. To illustrate the difference between the genres, I’ll use an example from a series that went from plot driven, noir, urban fantasy, mystery storytelling in the early volumes to urban fantasy romance to finally land firmly in erotica.
When I first started reading the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton, the books were pretty standard urban fantasy fare. Each book set up a murder mystery, then, in a fairly noir fashion, there was a lot of detecting and danger. Romance was an underlying theme in the early books, particularly with Anita’s push/pull with the lead vampire and werewolf of the series, but it took time to consummate — I’m not even sure if anyone has sex “on screen” in the first two books. But in the first two books, the romance was not the driving factor of the plot, the murder mysteries were. This is the primary difference between genres.
When you’re determining categories of books, it’s important to understand the underlying differences between genres. A person who enjoys science fiction isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a romance with science fiction elements. You might have even run into this confusion when someone you know recommended something to you that you ended up, to their surprise, not liking — “But you like fantasy! This has dragons!” One of the key components to determining genre is the plot. Is the plot dependent on the genre elements in the book?
If a book is about a man and a woman meeting, and the plot revolves around whether or not they get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re on a space ship or in a wizard’s school — it’s a romance. If the genre elements could be swapped out, and the story would essentially be unchanged, then romance is the main category you put the book in, with the sub-genre — science fiction/fantasy/horror — being secondary. But if the plot revolves around whether or not the man and woman in question make peace with alien life, then the genre is science fiction, even if during the course of the book the two of them get together. The mere presence of a relationship does not make a book a romance. The mere presence of a space ship does not make a book science fiction. The plot is what changes the genre.
Back to our example of Anita Blake. After three books, things started to heat up in Anita’s life, and the balance between mystery and romance became weighted heavily toward the romance end of things. The plot more consistently revolves around who Anita loves, with the mystery taking a back seat to the relationship issues. Because this is a series that shifted (pun perhaps intended), it’s harder to say 100% if it becomes romance or urban fantasy at this point. Anita is still working with the police, but the cases get less and less page space, and the relationships more and more.
Most readers note Obsidian Butterfly as being the point at which the books undergo a drastic shift in tone. Personally, I feel like the author was already edging us closer to erotica with each entry. Obsidian Butterfly seems like the start of this departure from urban fantasy mystery, I think, because the book on a whole is an outlier; it takes place in another city entirely and most of the recurring characters aren’t in it. It’s so different, that when we jump back into Anita’s life after this book, the lack of sexual tension in Obsidian Butterfly makes the contrast all the more obvious.
Before Obsidian Butterfly, Anita’s sexual encounters had already increased dramatically from the first three books. After Obsidian Butterfly, these books are no longer simply urban fantasy or romance; they are erotica — the sex scenes are not only extremely graphic, they are the focus of the book. They take up pages and pages, Anita focuses on them to the exclusion of whatever story is going on in the background, and they often drive the plot. The sex is the reason for the book, not the story. That means the book is erotica. When sex is the whole reason for the plot, that’s how you tell the difference between romance and erotica.
I stopped reading the series after it turned completely to erotica. Not because the sex in and of itself was off-putting, but the way Hamilton wrote it was — which leads me to my next point. Why do I write sex scenes the way I do?
Much like with anything we enjoy in life, we have preferences. Favorite foods, flavors, colors, book genres, movie types — whatever it is, we usually have things we prefer. We also usually have things we don’t prefer. Maybe we hate green beans. Maybe the presence of a particular actor will put us off a movie we’d normally like. Maybe a dress is fabulous, but that color! Ugh! Erotica and sex scenes are no different. People have preferences and turn offs. Hamilton wrote a lot about the pleasure of pain as she started to delve into her erotica. Pain is not pleasurable to me in the slightest. I don’t find anything remotely sexy about it. But plenty do (and more power to them), thus Hamilton has a generous market and continues to thrive as a writer. This works, because when people read erotica, they are looking for their particular preference. If you write erotica, you know that and don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you’ll turn someone off with a particular description. You know the audience is there for what you’re writing.
I don’t write graphic sex scenes. As I said before, it’s not because I object to them. The problem I have with writing extensive, graphic scenes in my books is I’m not writing a sex driven plot-line. I’m writing a different kind of story. In my writing, I remove — what I like to call — distracting elements. My style of writing is character driven stories with a fast, driving momentum. I want to pull the reader along — I want them to turn the page and keep going to see what happens next. If I take too much time to discuss at length, say, what’s for dinner, I feel the momentum start to lag. It’s a style choice, nothing more. Some authors love to luxuriate the reader with details. Some readers love this leisurely pace in their books. I write the same way I like to read. I’m not sure if this is true of all authors, but it’s true for me. I prefer books that move along and don’t dwell on details of little importance to the plot.
My editor and I have a saying, “And an apple sat on the table, unnoticed by anyone.” It’s shorthand for us to talk about things in my writing that have little point other than an interesting aside. I don’t want these distractions, or “apples,” there for the reader to wonder about only to be disappointed later when the detail amounts to nothing. If I give details, they are important to either the plot, the character development, or to allow the reader to feel the setting and mood of the story. I discard all the distractions as much as I can.
For me, detailed sex is a distraction. It’s a bit different from an apple on the table, but the reasoning is the same. All the editing I’m doing is in service of the story. If I can keep the reader’s focus on that story, then I’ve done it right. If I take the time to detail out a sex scene, it may work just fine for some people. The problem arises when it isn’t fine. I’ve written Paul and Jane to be a great couple. You’ve followed them through an adventure. You love them as a couple. You want them to fall in love. The moment comes when they kiss. And now they’re about to have the culmination of that relationship! Oh boy! This will be wonderful! And then I detail an intimate act that makes you go, “Ick!”
All that work to get you into the moment is wiped away by one scene. What I wrote that I thought was super sexy, you thought was downright gross. Now I’ve lost you, when there was no need to. As I said in the last posting, people aren’t reading books for the sex scenes unless it’s erotica. As an author, if you haven’t managed to already, you aren’t going to sell a couple as being in love if you include a highly detailed sex scene. You also don’t ruin the coupling if you fade to black just as the deed is being done. However, what you do achieve by fading to black is the perfect sex scene.
Let’s say roast chicken is your favorite food. If someone tells you they are going to serve you roast chicken, you start to imagine it. If they sit you down to wait, you start to taste it. If they start cooking it, the smells remind you of the last time you had it, and how great it was. When they put it in front of you, and you see how perfectly it’s been cooked, you know, without even taking that first bite, it’s going to be delicious. You can taste the flavors in your mouth without even eating it, you’ve thought about it so much by that point. If you bite into that chicken and get fish flavors instead, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, it probably ruined the whole experience for you, even if that fish was expertly prepared and as delicious as any fish ever cooked. You like chicken; you wanted chicken; you thought about chicken; you imagined chicken; but then you got fish. You don’t care if it’s awesome fish.
Detailing sex in books is like this. You’re setting the table and cooking up the meal in such a way the reader already has a picture in their mind of what it’s going to be like. And there is no picture that is more perfect for a reader than the one they think up — that is their idea of a perfect sex scene. Fading to black allows them to keep that picture in their head of what happened. It allows them to hold on to the perfect culmination of this relationship, and move on with the story without dwelling on anything that might accidentally make them think “Ick!” You don’t stall them, you don’t leave them with a bad taste in their mouth. They will continue to enjoy the story after that point.
I don’t write explicit sex scenes because I don’t see the upside to it as a storyteller. I might draw some people further in to the story if I get it just right, but I also might turn some people away. For something so trivial, it isn’t worth the risk. It’s the act itself that is important to my characters and their growth as a couple, not what they put where and when. By allowing the reader to fill in the details, I’ve created a bespoke sex scene for every possible desire.
If I were asked by a fellow author advice about sex scenes, I’d tell them everything I told you, with one addition – “All that said, if you really think it’s important, put it in your book.” I don’t think there’s never a place for it. Detailed sex scenes can also do a lot for a story. They can show how painfully awkward that first time is with someone. They can show how connected two people are. They can show heat in a way fading to black isn’t particularly strong on. However, there is an art to it, and I’ll say that I’ve read an awful lot of bad sex scenes. In fact, there’s more than one award for bad sex in writing. I think I’m okay not testing my ability to write these scenes to avoid the book version of a Razzie.
That’s really all I have to say about sex in books — at least I think so. 😉 Next posting I’ll be talking about the ease with which independent authors can edit their works post publishing — as compared to the traditional market — and my feelings on these ever changing “director’s cuts” and how they impact the experience for readers. Thanks for reading!
Here’s an entry guaranteed to get me that sweet, sweet link juice. (That’s a thing, right?) Sex. It’s in the majority of books I’ve read that were written post 1980 where the intended audience is adults. It’s either implied/fade to black sex or as anatomically correct as a surgical dummy. Sex scenes aren’t ubiquitous, but their absence is rare enough among bestsellers that when the deed doesn’t happen, it’s remarked upon – Dan Brown being a bestseller I recall reading specifically about in this regard. Unless you’re reading Christian Fiction, sex is more likely than not to show up in your books.
Why is sex in so many books? Certainly not to sell the books, unless we’re talking about erotica. I don’t think anyone ever picked up a copy of Gone Girl because of the sex scenes, and the lack of sex scenes didn’t stop Dan Brown from dominating the bestseller lists for so long. So why are they in there so often?
I can’t speak to why individual authors include them, but I can make a guess as to why they happen in so many books. Most fictional stories break down to being about people. They can have themes — like what happens when you have a society that is ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government (1984 by George Orwell) — but ultimately, even in heavily thematic books like Orwell’s, the author needs to tell a more personal story in order to bring the reader into their world — one about people.
A story is full of people. To make the people more realistic, they have to have realistic motivations and actions.
One of the strongest drives in humankind is the drive to procreate; it’s often listed as one of the base needs of all creatures and Maslow specifically called it out in his hierarchy of human needs. It’s so important, it’s at the base of the pyramid. But what does that even mean? Maslow came up with this list of human needs as a means to explain motivation — why do we do the things we do? This is an important idea to keep in mind when asking the question, ‘Why so much sex?’ We might only think of sex in writing as the explicit act, but in truth, the motivating factor of sex crops up in stories you might not have thought about before.
Even fairy tales, where heroes and villains are as black and white as it gets and the story is relatively simple, the evil is usually represented as a dark version of one of Maslow’s defined needs. Fairy tales are, after all, a way to teach a lesson — usually about overcoming the less savory aspects of our desires and motivations. That means that, yes, sex is a motivating factor in quite a few fairy tales. It’s there, it’s just implied sex rather than explicit.
When a child reads Snow White, all they need is the basic premise of bad guy/good guy. The evil queen is jealous, so schemes against Snow White. The story for them is saying jealousy is bad and kindness is good. To a child, they might be jealous because another kid has a toy they want — a covetous emotion more than jealousy. But the evil queen in Snow White is most certainly jealous of Snow White’s beauty; that is explicitly stated several times in the story. So, let’s dive into that and how it relates to Maslow and sex.
What is jealousy? In the case of Snow White, the evil queen’s jealousy comes from a desire to be the most beautiful. Why do people wish to be beautiful? It’s because they want the most choice in romantic partners — in theory1, the more attractive you are, the better your potential mate will be — which brings us back to the base need of sex driving the Queen’s motivations. That’s a deep reading of a fairly simple tale, but it’s a theme that comes up again and again in these old stories.
As our minds mature, we prefer more complication in our stories than “evil bad, hero good.” When a movie is made based on this same basic story of Snow White, but aimed at a more mature audience, it comes out like Snow White and the Huntsman, where the evil queen gets a backstory full of trauma that leads her to the kind of person she is. Villains like Cersei Lannister are given redeeming qualities to make them more human — she loves her children and would do anything to protect them. All these aspects create more fleshed out characters, in other words, complexity.
When you start to make a character more complex, you also start to include a variety of scenarios to explore them as a person. Often times, one of those scenarios is to put them in these situations with someone either strongly compatible with them, personality-wise, or strongly incompatible (characters who hold no particular interest to your protagonist are rarely interesting to write, and probably less interesting to read). Once you have two characters in a story who are strongly compatible, you will inevitably have sparks — that is the natural course of two people who have good chemistry meeting up.
Since sex is one of the core driving forces of motivations, it’s absence in a book where there are two characters of compatible sexual orientations becomes noted upon. Dan Brown doesn’t write sex scenes, but there’s enough tension in those books it would not feel out of place if something did occur. In fact, the absence of it feels more purposeful to some than the inclusion would.
I don’t think readers and critics noting the lack of sex is because readers are sex crazed and want sex shoehorned in everything. On the contrary, I think it’s because they really got into the character of Robert Langdon. They put themselves in his shoes. And that character is clearly into whichever female character he’s paired with. He’s in tense situations, they help each other out, the woman is always described as being quite attractive — the fact that they never knock boots is notable. We, as readers, cannot see ourselves in a situation where a single person, who is obviously into us, never makes a move or vice versa. It’s unrealistic. We would make that move with the dashing hottie. If said move didn’t work, then things get awkward, and that also makes for interesting fiction as it causes a new kind of tension.
Two characters who wander along in a story as friends only can work; I’m not saying it can’t. But even if it does, there’s probably a boatload of ‘ship stories out there finishing the job for the author who didn’t put it in there. Pretty sure Fanfiction.net could change their name to Shipping.net and a majority of the people who post and read there wouldn’t mind. I think that shows just how much of an uphill battle a writer is fighting if they try to forgo putting sex into their books.
There’s a frustration that builds with a reader when you put two people together who never consummate that relationship in a sexual way. I honestly don’t think it’s because the readers desperately want to read a sex scene — though I do admit those readers exist. I think most readers are frustrated for a deeper, more emotional reason. Sex is the shortcut way for a writer to say, “Hey, these two are in love and this is the culmination of that.” We all recognize that’s not the case in real life, but in writing, you only have so much time with your reader. Sometimes, shortcuts like these are a necessary payoff for a hundred pages of will they/won’t they. Readers appreciate it when you reward the characters they’ve fallen in love with. Sex is a shortcut to saying these characters have achieved happiness. Even if the world is falling apart around them, at least they found each other.
And if none of that convinces you why sex is in so many books, maybe the simplest answer is the truest: Sex is in books, because readers and writers are human, and humans have sex. Simple as that.
This ended up being a little bit longer than I planned. I wanted to get into how I write my sex scenes specifically, why I choose to write them the way I do. Turns out, I’m a pontificator. That’s what you get for reading a blog by an author. The next entry will be all about my sex scenes in particular – specifically my penchant for writing fade to black sex scenes.
A few weeks ago someone wrote me to compliment me on my book, Whom the Gods Love. They enjoyed most of it, but one particular scene struck them as odd. If you’ve read the series, you might already have guessed which scene this is. In a story rich with allusions to various mythologies and folktales, there’s a creature that seems out of place, something created for what might look at first glance to be a low-brow laugh — the aswang.
Before I go into what exactly an aswang is, I want to briefly touch on how I choose to borrow elements from history. Some authors enjoy re-writing historical events with a twist or in a new setting. George R.R. Martin, for instance, has said the War of the Roses was partial inspiration for his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Some authors use stories written hundreds of years ago and modernize them, like Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer winning novel, A Thousand Acres, which is a modernized re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Whenever I write of fantastical things, I often go back to my love of folklore and mythology. I enjoy using those stories to pepper my worlds with the familiar, and I enjoy playing with the idea of what we remember those stories to be about. For instance, in Whom the Gods Love the fairies are closer to the malicious version of that creature than to the cuter version we see in fanciful garden ornamentation. I’ve taken the malicious nature to the extreme in that series — the fairies are despicable creatures.
When I use these elements in my stories, I take a liberal definition of the creatures when they are well known. Most people have read fairy stories so have some idea of what they are. I don’t want to simply cut and paste fairy descriptions to people; I prefer to twist the tale in some way to upend expectations. However, when I’m using a story that might not be so familiar to my readers, I adhere more closely to the stories I’ve read. Sun, in Enchanted Legacy, remains a trickster character and even has several of the powers common in Monkey King tales, like duplicating themselves with hairs from their body. Similarly, the aswang closely resemble the horrors they are in Filipino tales about them.
Aswang are as familiar to Filipino people as vampires or werewolves would be to westerners. It’s their version of the boogie monster – a creature so terrifying it’s stories have carried on for hundreds of years. There are many variations of aswang, much like there are many variations of vampires. Some vampires can turn into mist, garlic is dangerous to some, some can control your mind, etc. While the Wikipedia article I’ve linked does not mention the use of phallic symbols to ward Aswang away, other sources frequently mention this method of keeping the aswang at bay. Thus, in my story, I included that tidbit. Lest you think the story of the aswang is meant to titillate (I’ll admit, in Whom the Gods Love it’s played up for a laugh) in the Filipino culture such is not the case. If the percentage of Catholics in that country doesn’t convince you of that (80%), then perhaps the habit of what the aswang does will — one of the common prey of aswang are pregnant women — specifically, fetuses.
A great deal of folklore comes from times when people didn’t quite understand science. Sometimes folklore was accurately related to real remedies we still use today — the leaves of a willow tree to alleviate pain, for instance, became aspirin. Superstitions surrounding fertility in ancient cultures often resulted in the use of phallic symbols for fairly obvious reasons — you use those to make babies, so a symbol celebrating the baby making seems appropriate when successfully having a baby in those times was extremely difficult. In the case of the aswang, they are used in a manner to ward off miscarriages, a distressing and common event where the cautionary behaviors to prevent it from occurring remained mysterious. Even today we continue to discover new causes of miscarriages as science advances, such as chromosomal abnormalities. In the days when these types of stories were being spoken around a fire, things like folic acid and other prenatal vitamins wouldn’t be worked out for hundreds of years.
As a species, we tend to like tangible answers to our problems. Creating a monster that steals the unborn is a problem we can mentally tackle. Science we haven’t discovered yet, less so. So the aswang was born, and the warding to keep it away invented, giving hopeful parents some comfort that they were doing what they could to keep their baby safe. And thinking on it, since stress isn’t great for mothers to be, it probably worked in some small capacity at relieving at least that problem.
I tell you all this, because I’d like people to know the choices I make for my stories are thought through. I didn’t just put the aswang into my book because I was amused by the idea of a phallus keeping monsters away, though that is amusing to me. I put it in there because I worked with a Filipino woman for a few years while in undergrad. When I was in grad school, I worked on a large project gathering myths, legends, folktales and fairy tales from around the world. My friend and co-worker wanted to make sure I included Filipino tales in the project. She provided me with a lot of resources, and I was delighted to learn new stories as much as she was delighted I included them in my research.
I find the differences in stories from far flung regions fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as I find the similarities. These are the stories we carried with us, before we had paper, before we had written language, before we had any kind of technology, aside from biological technology (spoken word) to carry them on. We thought they were important enough to keep telling. I’m happy to do my part to keep telling them and I hope you enjoy finding them in my stories. Feel free to ask me where something comes from if you suspect it has an origin older than my book. I love talking about them.
Next entry I’ll discuss sex scenes and why I choose to write them the way I do. Now that discussion will be titillating. 😉
P.S. It isn’t just tales I’m careful about including, but words as well. I’ve had a couple readers ask me about the title for Voro, and where it comes from. It’s Latin, and tangentially referenced in the book. The word is tattooed on Casey’s back — more than once.
What is Voro about? I’ve written about the book here, here, here and here. It’s a character driven horror story, so similar in style to something like Cujo, where the story follows a couple of main characters who must face a monster – though, there’s no rabid dog in Voro. 😉
A lot of great horror comes from fear. Sometimes it’s fear of the unknown, but oftentimes authors will delve into the more mundane fears — phobias. Spiders, heights and even birds have been used by horror greats to spin fearful tales. Most of those are covered by one man, Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a master of taking a phobia and turning it into a nightmare for everyone. Looking back at the movie Birds, we might giggle because the effects are silly, but the movie was terrifying for audiences of the day. Stephen King, who I’ve mentioned multiple times as I’m a big fan, uses phobias to great effect in his book IT. The creature in IT feeds on fear, and shows the protagonists in the film visions of the things they are most afraid of. The kids must face down their fears to overcome the creature. While some of their fears are born from real and harmful trauma, others fears that are used in the book are less rational. For instance, the very fact that the creature uses the guise of a clown is meant to be terrifying for some.
While I’m not afraid of clowns, I can certainly see where the fear stems from. Clown make-up is so disorienting, it can even screw up face identification software. It’s designed to give the impression of a permanent emotional state of the wearer – happiness, sadness, etc. Humans instinctually use facial cues to understand one another. Clown make-up takes away that vital visual communication. It’s a mask — another thing people have strong phobias about — and makes us uneasy. Besides not being able to tell how the person wearing the clown make-up feels when they’re speaking, it also takes away our ability to identify the individual. We can’t know who they are as easily. Clowns are in disguise, which is a kind of lie. For a lot of people, it’s a fun lie. For some, the lie makes them so uneasy they become fearful.
Fears help make us who we are. For instance, I’m low-key afraid of dogs — probably why I use Cujo as an example of monster horror as opposed to something like Friday the 13th. The fact that I’m afraid of dogs can tell you something about my past. When I was young, I watched Cujo and was terrified. It wasn’t that alone, however. When my brother was seven, he was bit in the face by a dog. He had a hundred stitches and a very large, prominent scar for many years. Even then, my fear of dogs hadn’t manifested. But it was starting. It wasn’t until I was a teenager riding my bike when the true fear set in. I was with my friends and we were riding bikes around the neighborhood after dark. Someone’s dog was loose, and when we rode by, it tore after us. I was in the back of the pack of riders, and I could hear that dog snarling just behind my tire for almost two blocks. I pedaled as fast as I could, my heart racing, terrified the dog would grab my ankle and bring me down. It was dark, and the only noise was the sound of our bikes and that snarl.
I had dogs all my life growing up. I loved them all. But in that moment, fear turned me into someone hesitant to even touch a dog. It stayed with me even as I grew up. Even with all the evidence from my childhood that dogs were lovely animals, that one instance kept me from getting one as a pet for many years.
About six years ago I finally decided I wanted to try to face this fear. It’s actually why I ended up with a pug. Someone once asked me why I picked a pug. I told them I wanted a dog as helpless as I was. That’s mostly true. I wanted a dog I wasn’t going to be afraid of. I’d read up on dogs for a long time before I picked. I wanted a chill dog that wouldn’t bark too much — barking is one of my triggers — and one that was known for being friendly. I also wanted a small dog. Not too small — I’d been snapped at by a Pekingese when I was a kid —but small enough it’s face wouldn’t scare me. That’s why I picked Posy.
Over the years, having her around has eased my phobia quite a lot. I even pet the pit bulls next door to me from time to time, a big deal for me since those kinds of dogs are known to be more aggressive. I’m re-learning that not all dogs are bad dogs, and biters and snarlers are rarer than waggers. Barking is still a pretty big dog thing, but the sound doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I’m glad I decided to face my fears, because Posy is a delight and my life is richer for having her around.
I still don’t think I’ll ever read or watch Cujo, though. 🙂
Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll come back next week.
I don’t typically write stories from one character’s perspective, choosing instead to dip in and out of character’s heads when the story demands it. When I started Voro, I began writing it straight away from Casey’s point of view. It wasn’t even a question in my mind as to who was going to tell the story. It’s a far more personal story for Casey, so he should be the one to tell it.
But things aren’t as straightforward as that. As you read through the story, you’ll note that it isn’t just Casey’s story — it’s Max’s story, too. While Max isn’t presented as the main character — certainly not from a narrative standpoint — she’s just as important as Casey to this story. This particular story couldn’t exist without Max, and obviously not without Casey, either.
So why did I choose to see things from Casey’s POV rather than Max’s? Most of my stories, while third person omniscient (as I wrote about in a previous post), still center around a strong female lead. In Voro, the female lead is relegated to a supporting character. This was mainly because of Casey’s position within the world — he’s the one with the knowledge about the monster. By focusing on Casey, I could have someone who knew everything about the creature slowly trickle out revelations as he tracked them down. Concurrently, his motivation for pursuing the creatures is more personal. If we were to see things through Max’s eyes, she’d see little but a killer. Casey sees something quite a bit different. I felt this perspective was stronger from a narrative sense, and makes the eventual reveal more powerful.
I also liked the idea of telling the story from Casey’s POV for the relationship development aspect of the story. Casey is a very troubled person, who has had minimal success in the past connecting with people. Max, on the other hand, is a relatively well-adjusted woman, albeit with some trauma in her past — though that’s clearly something she’s been able to move beyond. Casey is still working on his trauma and how it affects his relationships with others. I thought it would be interesting to reside, for a time, inside the head of someone so stunted emotionally. He’s not a young man — at nearly 35, he should be someone who has had numerous long-term relationships to inform his personality. But due to circumstances, he hasn’t had even short-term relationships. He’s clumsy, like a teenager, in his approach to relationships, but still has the experience to understand that he’s clumsy. Teenagers, while awkward, have little comparison to judge their awkwardness against to know just how awkward they are. Additionally, the people they typically get in relationships with are on equal footing. Casey is at a strange junction where the person he starts to connect with is more confident, so he is even more unsure of his own mind than he might’ve been had this happened when he was nineteen.
I liked the idea of exploring this type of character. When I think up a story, it isn’t just the scenario that pulls me in — Dragons. In space. — it’s also the characters. In fact, my focus is often on these characters and how they’ll confront the story they’re in — how does Samantha deal with dragons? In space? For me, that’s as important as the story itself. People are at the core of everything I write. How they feel and what their backgrounds are is as important to me as why there happen to be dragons. In space. So in the case of Voro, I wanted to see how the horror of the story was solved, but I also wanted to see how Casey navigated his own struggles, big and small. I’ve explored characters like Max before — confident women who know their mind and are extremely capable. But Casey was a character I hadn’t spent much time inside the head of. He made the most sense to be the main POV for both narrative and personal exploration reasons.
Thanks for reading these postings about my writing process. I hope they’ve been interesting and that they gave a little deeper insight into Voro. I won’t be writing any more about Voro — I don’t want to analyze it to death and diminish some of the magic of the world-building for readers. But I will post next week about the series that’s currently going through edits — the four part epic fantasy series I hope to start releasing this fall and conclude releasing by no later than January. And I’ll touch on my projected schedule for the Mission’s End series as well. Thanks, again, for reading!
Readers of my work probably know by now my love for lore — I spent many of my grad school days studying legends, folk tales, fairy tales and myths. If there really are only a handful of stories, then they were all told before people were writing things down. Some of the greatest stories ever told were passed down from generation to generation. The fact that they still survive today is a testament to their power to connect to the reader/listener.
I’m not the first author to mine these ancient tales, and I certainly won’t be the last. Authors as wide ranging as Shakespeare, Stephen King and Charlaine Harris have used ancient stories to populate their works with depth and history. There’s a reason Harris only needs to mention “vampire” in the opening chapter of her Sookie Stackhouse series to give the reader a general idea of what the atmosphere of the story is going to be. Those stories have existed in our cultures for hundreds of years. When King does the same in Salem’s Lot, the reader understands the basic horror of the story without it having to be elucidated. In Shakespeare, when fairies appear in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the viewers have the understanding that shenanigans are about to ensue, because all the stories they’ve read or been told inform them that that’s what fairies do — cause mischief. Taking these old tales out for a new spin is a way to create a history without having to write it. It’s also a way to upend expectations.
In Harris’ books, the vampires aren’t just blood sucking monsters — they have political aspirations and a deep social hierarchy that causes strife in ways unrelated to the horror of preying upon humans. King loves to twist around the tales he uses, subverting reader’s expectations and going in directions you weren’t expecting to keep you guessing. Is Jack going crazy in The Shining? Or is it the ghosts of the hotel? We, as readers, are familiar with malevolent ghosts from all the scary stories we’ve ever heard about them. But which of Jack’s actions in The Shining are more influenced by his alcoholism than by the fact that he’s gone stir crazy, or by the spirits of the Overlook? By blending the standard ghost story with psychological horror, King keeps us guessing at what is truly destroying Jack, all while providing a new twist on an old haunted house story. Most readers will have an idea of what happens in a haunted house, but with the added element of an unstable, recovering alcoholic, it makes the story fresh while familiar.
In Voro, I’ve incorporated a similar ancient story — though perhaps one less common than a ghost story. I won’t say which story — that’s part of the mystery after all — but similar to King, I’ve added other elements to the story to make it fresh. The familiarity of the monster I’ve chosen will be a shortcut to the horror – once you’ve discovered what it is, you’ll understand the motivations and how the creature operates. But the full extent of the horror isn’t revealed until closer to the end, where you’re left questioning what exactly it is this creature wants and how it chooses its victims.
In addition to the core of the story being based on an old legend, I’ve used a number of tropes and homages from various horror media I’ve consumed over the years. Scary stories are my second favorite, just behind trickster stories. If trickster tales illuminate and celebrate the resourceful side of human nature, scary stories shine a light on and critique the darker impulses of people – a reflection of the parts of society we generally deem to be bad or even evil. Voro is no exception in that it explores the idea of monsters, both inhuman and human – as to which is worse, that’s up to the reader to decide.
I open the book with a scene that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen even a smattering of horror movies – two teens necking in the woods. As you can guess, things don’t go well for these teens. This is a way for me to both introduce the monster of the book, as well as signal the book is firmly rooted in the horror traditions of cinema.
There are many other such scenes in the book throughout: the woods as a place of terror (nature vs man), premonitions (supernatural elements), dark settings (fear of the unknown), bullies (man vs man) and even more vaguely, the constant reminder that it’s the end of summer and fall looms on the horizon — the cycle of life and death.
More specifically, there are hints to some of the classic works of horror I’ve read or seen. Some will be easy to spot as they’ve become meme-worthy over the years. Others are more subtle, but I suspect my fellow horror aficionados will have no trouble spotting them when they occur; they could be anything from a scene to a line of dialog. This book is as much a new story for you as it is a kind of love letter to the horror I enjoyed growing up.
If you’re reading Voro, I hope you’ve been enjoying it. In my next post I’ll talk about why I chose the main character I did. Thanks for reading!
P.S. Surprise cat.
Starting today, readers signed up to my list will have had a chance to take a look at my newest book, Voro. In a little over a week, it will be available on Amazon for 99¢, so make sure you get your copy. I’ll make a posting when it goes live. The 99¢ sale will only run for a few days before it goes to the full price.
Fans of my work will notice some differences in the way the story was told. I’m going to go over one of the key decisions I made when writing Voro that gives it that unique feel among my other works.
Readers of my work know I typically write in third person omniscient. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means the “narrator” of the book can see everything, up to and often including the internal thoughts of all the characters. When you read a book like And Then There Were None by the late, great Agatha Christie, you notice she jumps from head to head to give the reader insight into the motivations and reasoning behind the characters actions and words. This can be a very powerful tool for an author as it lets us really dig in to all the characters.
When I think of books people call “character driven stories” I often think of third person omniscient, because it’s the easiest way to make a story more about the characters. It’s not more work to write one way than any other — each style of narration brings its own set of rules and best practices. I’ve gotten better over the years with how I employ third person omniscient, primarily because I started studying how it was done in other great works, and read up on the best ways to approach it – by the way, if you’re thinking of writing and wondering what person you should put your narrator in, I highly recommend Ursula Le Guin’s book, Steering the Craft. She has a whole section on narration choice, including prolific examples of each form presented alongside the perks and problems with each.
I choose to write this way because I like the freedom of exploring all the characters fully. That being said, I knew when I started writing Voro that it was a different kind of story. For one, it’s a horror story. I felt like some of the mystery of the story might be diminished if the reader was able to see so much of everyone’s thoughts. While a book like the aforementioned And Then There Were None uses head hopping to keep the reader guessing whodunit, I didn’t feel that would work so well with my story due to the much smaller main cast. Christie’s seminal mystery has at least ten main characters, thirteen if we include the inspectors, which allows a lot more room for mystery to unfurl. Voro has three main characters and a smattering of side – though important – characters.
Secondly, I wanted the narrative to feel claustrophobic. I wanted the reader to actively feel like there was knowledge out there that could ease their uncertainty, but be unable to access it. The best way to do this was to make my third person omniscient constricted as well, by limiting the viewpoint to one person. For the majority of the book, you only see things through the eyes of the main character, Casey. In the opening scene, you are in the head of a young woman. But that’s the last you ever see of her. In a later chapter, towards the end of the book, I go into one other head – I won’t say who here, so as not to spoil anything for readers. The narrator can see things Casey doesn’t see, but I only used this sparingly, to note specific things. In fact, I can think of only one place in the book where the narrator calls out something Casey can’t specifically see.
Limited third person omniscient can be employed in this way — probably the most famous current example is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character. That means what you’re “hearing” in the narrator’s voice is tinged with the opinions of the character’s perspective. Cersei might perceive herself as a victim in one scenario, whereas another character at that same point and time might see what happens to her as justice. Third person limited omniscient is a powerful narrative device that can help get a reader to empathize with an otherwise despicable character, something Martin excels at, as well as slowly revealing a full picture of events as seen through different character’s eyes.
In the case of Voro, I’m using it to close in on the reader, to restrict their access to knowledge — to keep them in the dark. I want the reader to be just close enough to the truth to be frightened of it without giving away the true terror until I’m ready. I want the reader to invest in the character of Casey before I let them in on the horror. Limited third person omniscient provides a way for me to control pacing as well as atmosphere.
This was a new style of writing for me, so it took me longer than usual to finish the book. The closest I think I ever came to third person limited omniscient was The Arbiter — most of that story is told from Drystan’s perspective – though I was less aware of what I was doing at the time since it was the first book I wrote. Since then, I’ve been more purposeful with my choices in narration. I think it’s made my stories better, smoother and easier to read.
I do look at my reviews, and I take in the criticism with a careful eye for what is simply someone who doesn’t like my style versus someone making commentary about the craft of the story. If I get a review where someone complains about, for instance, too much “relationship stuff,” I take that to mean my stories probably aren’t for them. But, over the years, I’ve seen a lot of comments that use the phrase “head hopping” to describe my work, and not in a positive way. I have taken this comment to heart, and upon re-examining some of my earlier work, I can see that the transitions between character’s thoughts were sometimes jarring. I’ve since been more conscientious about these transitions, and have been working harder to make them feel more natural. Voro is probably the most constricted I’ve ever felt writing a book, in large part because I couldn’t just explore the other character’s thoughts; everything had to be relayed through Casey’s eyes and feelings. Writing this book helped me get a better grasp on the techniques of storytelling, and I feel it shows in the work I’m editing now – a fantasy series told in traditional third person omniscient.
My next post will be about some of my influences in writing Voro, including horror masters, as well as ancient stories older than the written word. Thank you for reading!
I know most horror movies tend to come out in the fall, usually planted somewhere around Halloween. Some authors also release scary short stories during that time as well. I could have waited to drop my new book until then, but summer just felt like the right time. For one, the book takes place in August. For another, summer is as much a time for horror as Halloween. So many classic horror stories take place in the summer. When we think of horror and summer, images of creepy summer camps and serial killers spring to mind. Scary stories told around a campfire or at summer sleepovers are also common tropes. That’s the vibe I was going for in my newest book, Voro. In the stifling heat of summer, monsters come out to play.
In the next few days, perhaps even tomorrow if I can make a little magic happen, I’ll be sending out a copy of Voro to all the readers subscribed to my email list. It’s a thank you of sorts for being patient as I get through some of the long term stuff I’ve been working on. I know it’s been more than a year since you’ve seen any new stories from me, and I apologize for the lack of updates. I’ve been busy writing a four part fantasy series all at once. I’ll tell you more about that later — I don’t want to steal the spotlight away from Voro. The book will be available for pre-order on Amazon shortly, and on all other retailers beginning in October. I’m entering Voro in the Kindle Storyteller contest, which requires Amazon exclusivity temporarily. I’d like to take the shot, long as it may be, on the chance that this book might catch on with Amazon readers.
Voro isn’t the first horror book I’ve written, but it will be the first I publish. It’s a standalone title in the style of other classic horror books like those by Stephen King or Clive Barker. It’s a monster tale, so not a serial killer horror or psychological horror — more IT than The Shining. I’m really excited to hear what readers think. My editor loved it, and I feel like it’s marked a new period of growth for me as an author. By now, I’ve published more than a million words. I’ve probably written closer to two million, but I’m pretty sure I’ve scrapped a million words over the course of my career as an author – either through editing or simply restarting a book I wasn’t satisfied with after I’d mostly finished it. In that time, I’ve grown immensely in terms of technical expertise. My editors continue to send me fewer and fewer comments with regard to my technique. I’m starting to feel like I’ve hit a new level when it comes to the craft. I hope you enjoy what I’ve come up with.
I’ll tell you more about Voro in a couple days, including some of the decisions I made when writing it regarding style and technique. For now, I’m going to make this promise: I will update this blog more. It might not be weekly, though that’s a tentative goal I’m working on, but it will be at least monthly. I have a lot of things to update everyone on, so there will probably be more posts in the next few weeks than usual. Just know that I have a lot of big news to share regarding upcoming books — my new fantasy series announcement and, yes, news about the next installment of Mission’s End. Thank you so much for your continued support!
Hello all! First, I should mention that I’ve entered a book in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO). For those unfamiliar with this contest, it’s basically an indie book fantasy contest where the judges are ten sites that review fantasy books. Mark Lawrence has posted a bunch of information about this year’s contest on his blog. I entered Enchanted Legacy and I’m excited to see how it will do.
Since there are quite a few redditors from the Fantasy subreddit who follow the contest closely, I’ve decided to give away 2,000 digital copies of Enchanted Legacy for those interested in reading along with the bloggers. You don’t need to sign up for my mailing list to get this title free, just go to Bookfunnel and download the version you’d like. First come first served, so grab one while you can. A bunch of the other authors involved in the contest are also running deals on their books. One of the best ways to find these deals is to search for SPFBO on twitter.
But wait! That’s not all the news I have. I’ve been busily writing the last couple of months and I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve got with you. I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated everyone on what I’m currently working on. I’m right in the middle of a new fantasy series. At the moment, I’m thinking four books – I’ve written the first couple and am working on the third. Some of you may be asking why I haven’t started publishing the first one yet. Part of the reason is because I want to make sure the continuity is solid, solid as a rock (apologies but this song is stuck in my head). The story is a bit complex – I’ll tell you more about it in my next posting – and it’s really important to me that I stick the landing on it. In return for your patience, I’ll be giving the first book to all my subscribers absolutely free. I’ll still be running an advance review team for it (those folks will get the first book a month early), but everyone on my mailing list will get the finished book when it’s ready as a thank you for your support. I know that’s not much to go on, so here’s a little teaser for everyone. It’s only been edited lightly and hasn’t yet been to my editor. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy the prologue to this new story.
The sea was calm in the pre-dawn light. Roscoe’s line was still, as it had been all morning. He tugged it every so often, hoping his bait hadn’t drowned. Fish weren’t as interested in dead bait. When he felt no resistance on the line he spat into the water. The foam floated on the surface longer than it should have, but Roscoe hardly noticed.
“I think this is a bust, Father. Your new secret fishing spot isn’t playing out,” he said, sighing.
Roscoe’s father was minding three lines. Not one had moved in the last hour. A single silver fish – too small, but it was the first catch of the day, and it was bad luck to throw back the first catch – swam in circles in the wooden bucket on the deck of his boat. He turned to look at his son.
Roscoe hadn’t been blessed with his father’s darker skin. His was pale and constantly red from his work on the water. Freckles so numerous they blotted out his skin dotted Roscoe’s shoulders. Gerald would swear Maggie had lain with another man if Roscoe didn’t share his brown hair, eyes and wide nose.
“It’s a fine spot,” he said, tugging at one of his lines to check the bait. “The fish just ain’t biting today. I told you, I scouted the area last week. I noticed a warm current. This time of year, that should draw the fish like nothing else. And the current comes right through here.”
Roscoe looked down into the water doubtfully. He leaned over the boat’s edge, hooking his foot under the rudder to keep his balance. He sunk his hand into the unusually calm waters then wrinkled his brow.
“You said warm. But this is bath water. This won’t draw fish in so much as cook them. No wonder they aren’t biting.”
Gerald made a scolding noise and walked over to Roscoe, pulling him back aboard.
“Don’t exaggerate, Rossie. This is the sea. It ain’t as warm as a bath. Can’t be. It’s impossible.”
“Feel it yourself if you don’t believe me.”
Gerald rolled his eyes. If he needed to stick his arm in to prove it to his son, he would. But he’d cuff Roscoe right after for goading him into doing it. Roscoe moved out of the way so his father could position himself safely. Once he’d anchored his feet, he stretched out to reach the water. He wasn’t as tall as his son, so he teetered on the edge of the boat, barely hanging on.
He dipped his hand in the seawater for a few seconds before a puzzled expression crossed his face. Roscoe wasn’t wrong. Even stranger yet, the water grew warmer the deeper he plunged his arm. He stretched further into the depths.
“You’re gonna fall in, pa.”
“Be quiet, boy. I’m trying—”
Gerald’s foot lost its purchase and he tumbled into the water. Roscoe crossed his arms and grinned.
His grin fell after his father remained below the surface for longer than a minute. He gripped the side of the boat and peered into the depths.
For an agonizing ten seconds, there was nothing. No sound, no ripple, no sight of his father. Roscoe began pulling off his boots to dive in when a scream erupted from the other side of the boat.
Roscoe ran to the opposite edge of the boat to see his father struggling to stay above water. Steam was rising from his skin and wet clothes. He was screaming non-stop.
Roscoe reached down and pulled his father aboard. His skin was hot to the touch.
“Get them off me. It burns! Get them off me!”
Gerald was pawing ineffectually at his clothes. Roscoe helped him out of his vest and pulled away aghast. Gerald’s skin was blistering as if he’d been boiled.
Gerald didn’t speak. His breath came in pants as he pulled off his trousers. The pain was unbelievable. The cold air seemed to seep right past his skin to his muscle. It was no longer a gentle caress on a warm day – the breeze was made of knives. He needed a doctor, and there was something dreadfully wrong with the sea. He grimaced and looked up at Roscoe to tell him to begin rowing to shore.
But Roscoe was staring out at the water in horror. Despite his pain, Gerald managed to pull himself up to the edge of his boat. As he looked out over the water, an odd sensation hit him. He was hungry. The sea smelled of stew. All around the boat, the water began to churn. Fish, seaweed, clams, crabs, and all sorts of other sea life floated to the surface. All dead.
Then the sea began to bubble.
“Get away from the edge boy!” Gerald rasped. “Get to your oar!”
Roscoe stumbled to his seat. With colossal effort, Gerald pulled himself to his own oar. The pain was incredible, but his body was powered by pure adrenaline. He lurched clumsily into a rhythm as he began pushing and pulling his oar, but the boat was going in circles instead of away from the bubbling sea. Steam began to billow around the boat.
“With me boy!” Gerald called out. “Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.”
With Roscoe now rowing in time with his father, the boat slowly made its way towards the shore. Gerald looked out over the sea. He could see where the boiling stopped not too far away. They could make it. If they kept going, they could make it.
His skin screamed at him every time he took a stroke. It felt like someone was using a cheese grater on him with every slight movement, but he couldn’t stop. He knew he couldn’t stop. He didn’t know what was happening, but he knew death would come for them if he stopped.
The boat began to sway violently. Boiling water sloshed over the side. Gerald pulled his feet back in time, but he heard a scream of pain from Roscoe.
“Hold on boy! You have to row! Hold on! Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!”
Then a swell of water tipped the boat into the air. For a fraction of a second, Gerald felt like he was weightless. He could see the water far below him, his boat on a wave that put him almost perpendicular to the flat surface of the sea. A creak from the boat broke the spell, and the boat began to slide down the wall of water.
Gerald couldn’t tell if Roscoe had heard him – a guttural scream was his only reply. The boat plunged downward. Miraculously, it managed to keep upright. Water sloshed over them, washing them in fresh waves of pain and heat, but they made it to the bottom of the wave alive.
Gerald turned around, expecting to see more waves following. His eyes widened and he stood. They hadn’t slid down the side of a wave. Roscoe joined his father. His pale skin was even redder than it had been before, blisters covering his arm.
“Pa… is that…”
Gerald dropped his oar. There was no point now. The dragon circled. Its girth made it look as if it was moving in slow motion. It screamed and the water around them vibrated like the skin of a drum. Roscoe flinched, but Gerald remained still. He took his son’s hand.
“I thought they were all dead,” Roscoe whispered.
These were the last words he spoke.
The dragon whirled and spotted them in the water. It opened its sulfurous maw and roared. The water around the boat turned to steam instantly – the boat and its occupants, to ash. For a few seconds, the ash kept its shape – a small fishing boat, two long oars, even the fishing poles. In the center of the boat were two humans holding hands. Then the wave of hot air that followed the gout of flame burst over the water and the ashes scattered, leaving nothing but a grey cloud behind.
This is going to be a pretty pug heavy post, so before I get to that, just a few tiny updates. Today, I’m r/fantasy’s Author of the Day. You can check that out here if you want to stop by and say hello.
Also, I’m well into the second book of the new fantasy series I’m working on. I’m thinking I might share a chapter or two of the first one with you guys soon, so keep an eye on the blog for news of that. It’s an epic fantasy series that will be at least three books long, possibly four. I’m still working through how long the story will take to tell. It’s hard to say at this point. Right now I don’t have a title yet, so in my newsletters you’ll see it as Dawn of Dragons/Day of Dragons. I have several ideas for the title that are far more descriptive of the overall story, but I can’t settle on one yet. As you can guess from the temporary title, the series features dragons in a major way. And yes, I am working on The 11 as well. Don’t fret!
Without further ado, the pug that was promised.
I keep meaning to share a little something with everyone and time just keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping… anyhoo. This last Christmas my brother gave me a tiny glass pug. I think it’s too cute. So here, in all it’s glory, is the tiny, peanut shaped pug.
Since my actual pug is also pretty peanut shaped, I think this is a perfect representation of a pug. She tells me otherwise.