The Non-Fiction Novelist

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the month “December, 2014”

Write the Steamiest Sex Scenes Ever: Guaranteed

Write the Steamiest Sex Scenes Ever: Guaranteed

By Larry Kahaner

When writers ask me how to write sex scenes, I always give them an answer that they hate.

Don’t do it.

Why?

It rarely works and makes you look like an idiot.

Men's Health UK

It’s what you don’t see that’s sexiest (Men’s Health UK)

I’m not sure why, but most authors, even famous and popular ones, can’t write a sex scene to save their lives. I have my theories as to why this is true but it doesn’t matter. No matter whom the author, their sex scenes often come out ludicrous or mechanical. Thriller writers are the worst offenders as are those transitioning from non-fiction to fiction.

Oddly enough, this even holds true for erotica writers. Each time they try to describe the sex act in a new and novel way, with the aim of titillating their readers with something different (and I applaud them for their effort), the result is often farcical.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t strong sex scene writers out there. There are, but they are rare.

This dearth of bad sex scene writing even has its own award given by the Literary Review. Among the short list finalists his year were two Booker-winning novelists and one from a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

A Guardian article noted: “The Literary Review sets out to find ‘the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction,’ and describes it as ‘Britain’s most dreaded literary prize.’ Established by Auberon Waugh in 1993, its purpose is to draw attention to ‘perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them,’ with former winners including Sebastian Faulks, A.A. Gill and Melvyn Bragg.”

Here’s some good (bad) news. “I think this is one of the strongest shortlists in recent years, containing some real literary heavyweights,” said Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman.

Here’s an article about the winner, Ben Okri for the passage in his book The Age of Magic. This is Okri’s 10th book. He won the Booker in 1991 for The Famished Road and has received, among other prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction prize. He’s no slouch but look what he wrote:

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

Okri’s response to winning: “A writer writes what they write and that’s all there is to it.”

So, what to do about your sex scene?

Leave it largely to your readers’ imagination. Start with this: “She took his hand and they walked into the bedroom. Darkness fell.” Spiff it up a bit, talk about clothing, smells and lighting but NOT too much. Your readers will fill in the blanks with their own imaginations, and I can bet that it will be a million times sexier than what you could describe.

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Drop-In Character

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished a terrific book that had one major flaw. It’s a shame, too, because the book’s author is up there with Baldacci, Child and Crais. He’s not nearly as well known as these guys but he’s that good.

Beware the drop-in character.

Beware the drop-in character.

I won’t tell you the book or author so as not to embarrass him but my reason for telling you this is so you won’t make the same mistake. This goes for fiction and non-fiction writers.  Both can be prone to the same error.

The book is a business thriller that starts off with a bang (literally, if you know what I mean) and proceeds to bring in genius characters with their foibles, oddities and random proclivities that make you smile and keep reading. The plot concerns financial shenanigans. There’s a lot of computer type stuff, which I normally don’t like, but it’s done so well that it kept my interest.

Now here’s what happened.

A few chapters in, the most eccentric, fresh and compelling character I’ve read in years enters the picture but then you don’t see him (ok, maybe a few tiny times) until the end where he persuades the main characters to start a consulting team because they’re the best in the world at what they do. It appears to me that when he was done writing the book the author decided to turn it into a series. That’s cool, but he shouldn’t have introduced that great character unless he was going to use him the whole way through.

It’s wrong to parachute a character in – a unique one at that – and then not see him fully operate until the end of the book where he springs to life.

I get what the author was trying to do – and agree that it would make a great ‘book one’ of a series – but this was not the way to do it.

There were several choices the author could have made. First, rewrite the book to get the eccentric character intertwined from the start so he does not drop in unceremoniously at the end.

The second was to put him in the end of the book but do it so cleverly that the reader accepts it. How? Several ways come to mind. He could have been pulling the strings all along; he could have been the unknown person who dropped helpful hints to the main characters… a few more will come to me later.

So, did I enjoy the book? Yes, it was terrific and except for this one screw-up, it was nearly flawless. I even bought the second in the series, because, like I said, the author’s writing, plotting and storytelling is top notch. If he pulls this kind of stunt again, though, I’m getting a Kindle refund.

Guest Blog: Robin Latham – “Why Not Pinterest for the Novelist?”

Novelist Robin Latham is writing a book about the Caribbean and has discovered that Pinterest helps organize her research material. This works for non-fiction writers, too. Here’s how she does it.

Why Not Pinterest for the Novelist?

by Robin Latham

For a very long time (I’m embarrassed to say how long) I’ve been doing research for a novel set in the Caribbean during the sugar days – the late 17th-early 18th centuries. The Internet existed when I first began the research, but not with the extent of resources it offers now. My early research involved tracking down sources at libraries or in online used book stores. Sometimes I even took notes by hand when the source was rare or only available in the archives of the tiny Caribbean island of which I was writing.

Nevis: Queen of the Caribbees

Nevis: Queen of the Caribbees

It remained a hobby for a long time as I rambled through different sources trying to find out – not the historical timeline of the island, which was easy to establish – but the day to day aspects of a culture that aren’t necessarily written down. In my case, I had three very different cultures to understand on this island:  the Anglo planters (mostly Scots and English), the African slaves (mostly from nowadays Ghana/Nigeria), and a small colony of Sephardic Jews who had brought the knowledge of farming and refining sugarcane from Brazil to the British Caribbean islands.

My questions were simple.  How did they dress? What did they eat? How did they entertain themselves? How did they practice their faith (whether Anglican, African, or Jewish)? In short – what did their world look like?

At my day job one day I attended a presentation about using social media to promote health education messages. One of the vehicles discussed was Pinterest, which I’d heard about, but had thought was mostly for ladies looking for new interior decorating ideas. Something about it intrigued me.

I wanted to see how Pinterest worked. It took me several hours just to figure out how to “pin” something. Then I had to figure out what I wanted to pin. That’s where my exploration of Pinterest abruptly ended. I wasn’t looking for interior design ideas, or recipes, or patterns for crocheting baby booties. Nor did I want to pin any of those things.

Time passed. I began to gather all my resources for my novel so I could learn what I had and where to find it. Much of what I had now was on the Internet and I wasn’t sure how to archive sites with http addresses other than putting them into a WORD document. I tried Evernote but the interface was so formidable that even “Evernote for Dummies” flummoxed me. Besides, I didn’t need to be able to search every resource I had by keyword. I just wanted to see what I had collected all in one place.

Planting cane in the West Indies

Planting cane in the West Indies

So, Pinterest.  Maybe I did have something to pin after all. I started pinning all kinds of material: covers of all the books I’d  used in my research (a visual bibliography); photos and drawings from the period of sugar mills and sugar mill technology; archaeological sites, sugar mill ruins, maps and prints of people, places, and flora and fauna from the colonial days; figural art from the Yoruba, Ibo, and Congo cultures; and photos I’d taken on visits to the island of historical sites such as the Sephardic cemetery and colonial fortifications that were still standing. My pins became even more encompassing as plot points began to coalesce into a full story.  I was pinning costumes from current celebrations – Junkanoo, Sugar Mas, Cropover –  that had  been going on for centuries in the British Caribbean islands because they have close visual connections to African tribal art and ceremonial rituals. I pinned links to contemporary kaiso/calypso music, which is heir to a musical tradition extending back to the plantation days and which offers sly social commentary on the ruling class (as well as a call to dance and drink troubles away). One of the subplots of my novel involves mechanical fancies run by water power. I found all kinds of places in the world with miniature mechanical villages and pinned pictures and links to them.

800+ pins later, I’ve discovered that Pinterest is a wonderful writers’ resource. It gathers all my sources and lets me see them in one place. I can’t emphasize how important it is to see your novel visually, not just as words on a page. Looking at things seems to activate a different kind of knowing and understanding than reading does. Using Pinterest makes my story richer.

You can find Robin Latham’s Pinterest page at Tradewinds: A Novel in Progress

Why Do So Many People Write at Starbucks?

By Larry Kahaner

Why do so many people write at Starbucks?

The answer has to do with me going to Nevis.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

Let me explain.

Brain researchers don’t quite understand it all, but they’re learning more and more about something called ‘neuroplasticity.’ This is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking, emotions and, of course, an unfortunate conk on the noggin. These changes in neural pathways and synapses determine, among other things, our creativity.

This means that your brain actually changes its functional structure based on your thoughts, environment and the other items listed above. What does this have to with writing? Simply put, by changing our neural pathways and synapses we can be more creative in our fiction as well as non-fiction writing. One way to do this is through a change in scenery.

I recall many times having trouble figuring out the approach to a feature article I was writing. Getting away from the office, even for a short while, really helped solidify my thoughts. The same went for my non-fiction books. Getting away always worked. A change often led me to ‘aha moments’ and I could see a whole book’s organization and structure in my mind’s eye for the first time.

Dune_Shacks_of_Peaked_Hill_Bars_Historic_District

Dune shack of Cape Cod.

Consider the Dune Shacks of Cape Cod. These ramshackle huts built for washed- up-on-the-shore sailors have offered help to the likes of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollack. Before modern science stepped in we thought the structures’ powers lay in solitude, beauty and the sound and smell of the surf. People used the word inspiration. Sorry. It’s just that it was different – very different – from where the writer/artist usually lived and worked. Not only was the scenery dissimilar to home but the shacks had no running water, electricity or other everyday amenities. How’s that for different? They still don’t offer creature comforts and you can enter into a lottery to try one for yourself.

You’re probably thinking that we writers have always known that a change in environment is good for our writing. Now we know why. The science is solid.

Writers often thrive in artistic and literary retreats. It’s not that the environment is so conducive to writing – although it may have to do with not having to cook your own meals or handling everyday family tasks – but, again, it’s that it’s different. A good pal of mine just returned from such a place where he clocked about 4,000 words a day while in residence. He claims his output was due mainly to being relieved of his daily household chores, but I’m going with the science.

By changing our environment, we change what we see, what we smell, how we feel and what we think. This helps to get us out of our brain ruts which have been worn deep by doing and seeing the same things day in and day out. Scientists now tell us that these ruts are real and not imagined. Leaving these ruts puts us on new paths of thinking and understanding and that’s always good for writers, fiction and non-fiction alike.

I can tell you right now that being on the island of Nevis is helping my ability to churn out new thoughts and ideas, and not just about writing. At the risk of being too obvious, Nevis is very different from where I live outside of Washington, DC. Nevis is lush and warm. It’s a roundish, volcanic island with one extinct cone in the middle, Nevis Peak, which is often shrouded in clouds. Yep; it’s different.

n p[eak

Nevis Peak

But you don’t have to get on an airplane to get the same benefits of being in a different place. It doesn’t take much.

Sometimes I just move my laptop to my dining room table and that helps clear the cobwebs. Other times I sit in Starbucks and enjoy some flashes of writing fervor. It’s not the coffee or the slow internet that wires me for greater word output.  It’s being out of  my everyday office.

Instead of grinding away in the same digs, change your venue. Even small changes in your work environment can move your writing to new places.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller USA, Inc. now available in eBook and paperback. Money-back guarantee. 

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