Learning from Love - part one

>> Tuesday, December 27, 2011

So the word on my Rocket Scientist blog is, though I truly thought I had found my soulmate and loved him, heart and soul, only to be left with a shrug on his part for someone else (two days before my birthday, I might add, with no warning), I'm still qualified to write about love in my novels.

Which is good because it's a big part of all the books I've written and all the books I'd planned to write. But I can learn from this rather humiliating episode in my life to make my books better, more realistic, more powerful, even more romantic (without, I hope, being corny)?

Not sure yet. Hard to write at the moment which is why my blogs have been largely languishing.But can't let that go indefinitely, so here's today's questions, inspired by my having to deal with an "other" woman, for anyone who'd care to comment.

Jealousy is a big thing in many romantic stories, considered proof of caring. On the other hand, loving someone (by my own definition), puts their needs beyond your own. I have not done romantic triangles (or any other geometric shape) to date, but that might come not too far in the future. So, at what point does jealousy stop being about love and start being about ownership? Should you give away the one you love without protest if they truly love someone else? Are the two perspectives mutually incompatible?

And that brings up a side question. If we presume (and I do) that loving someone does not imply obligation on the someone's part, what does it say about an individual if they let the lack of return love (or falling out of love) corrupt the original love. Should anyone base one's love on what they wanted in return? Should it warp if the love is unrequited?

I will tell you how I see the answers to these questions in a later post, but, for now, I'd like to see your own responses. The floor is yours.



Update on the Good News

>> Thursday, December 15, 2011

Remember when I said my story was going to be published in the winter version of SQ Magazine? Well, apparently, now it's going to be different. Not long after what I thought was going to be the issue they were discussing went on sale, I received and email that said (in part):

I am writing to you because your story won a prize, or was short listed, in the Story Quest Short Story Contest, and part of the arrangement was that your story would be published in SQ Magazine.
This is still the case.

However, IFWG Publishing is pleased to announce that we have decided to 'up the ante' with regard to our magazine publishing, and therefore your short stories will be part of this experience – and definitely benefit.
Currently, SQ Magazine is a print (and ebook) speculative fiction publication, published twice a year and containing roughly 100 print pages in each edition - and something like 12 to 14 short stories. We are proud of what we have achieved in our first three editions, but we have decided to move to a completely different format, not unlike many other top grade publications over recent years. We will now publish as follows:
1. We will be a free online zine, published six times a year.
2. We will publish three to nine stories in each edition (more toward the latter, meaning, we will publish something like double the number of short stories than our current arrangement, per year).
3. At the end of each calendar year, we will choose the best stories, and publish them as a print and ebook anthology - usually around March of the following year.
4. At this stage, our efforts will still be 'for exposure' by authors - the economics can have it no other way, but as our advertising, donations, and side-enterprises increase revenue, we will follow it through to future writers.
This arrangement will take place from what would have been SQ Magazine #4 - in March 2012 (that is, editions from then on are online zines and will be published every two months). This changes our print schedule of Dec 2011/Jan 2012 to online on 1 March 2012. Our magazine will then be called 'SQ Mag'.
How does this affect you? Well, firstly, your work will get much more exposure probably from day one, and secondly, you will have a chance at having your work published in an anthology. The first part is entirely consistent with what the contest rules stipulated - it's just that the medium has changed. The second part is a bonus for you.

Thought I'd inform those interested. When I see it in e-print or real print, I will bring it to your attention with links.


Just a Bit of Good News

>> Tuesday, November 15, 2011

After a hiatus nearly as long as my eldest daughter's life, I'm going to be in print again with a fiction. At the prompting of my sister, the redoubtable Shakespeare, I entered a short story contest with Story Quest Magazine. Admittedly, I haven't been writing many short stories, recently, but I had been going through the ones I had trying to spiff 'em up a little. And the "speculative" part of the contest was right up my alley.

Well, I didn't win, but one of my stories did make it as a finalist and will be published in this winter's issue of SQ Magazine, so cool beans for me.

Feel free to get yourself a copy (I presume all the finalists and winners will be in there). I'll be doing the same.


Never Too Old To Learn

>> Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tired of squirming yet? I know, for many people, the whole topic ("boys love") is pretty squirmy. I think that's one reason I jumped on it. Topics that make us uncomfortable, that make us squirm, as it were, are too often glossed over or ignored, leaving them open for ridicule, stigmatizing, indifference, stereotyping, and, frequently, abuse and ostracism.

Admittedly, some squirmy topics are purposely picked up and brought center stage to highlight important issues by different writers and such. Sometimes, when done with a deft hand, such treatment is quite effective. When done with a heavy hand or in over-the-top ways, they tend to work against their own goals. But I digress. I wanted to pursue a topic that was a little uncomfortable for me until I understood it better, that maybe made me squirm a little. It's easy to become complacent in one's own little perspective, looking out at the world through a single set of lenses and thinking you see things clearly. Until you've tried on a few sets of specs, though, you're just fooling yourself.

It wasn't just the differences in romantic characters here, either, or the similarities I didn't expect. Many of these are shorter works, stories told in a handful of chapters, if not just one, as opposed to the volumes of chapters I'm used to to portray a moving story. That was instructional in and of itself.

I'm grateful I pursued a little different perspective and hope to use what I learned in my novels.

What did I learn?

(a) That my view, that real love is about devoting yourself to the happiness of someone else besides yourself, is not gender specific. Jealousy, to an extent, is fine for romance, but to the point of ownership? - well, there you lost me. So that really didn't change, except that I saw some ways I never thought of before to be romantic. So, cool beans.

(b) I still hate rape. I don't care how prevalent it is in this or that literature. You will not hear any of my characters being forced, gasp, "No! Wait! Stop! Please!" and snuggling up to their rapist later. I know it happens plenty in today's heterosexual romances, too. Still hate it and you won't find it in my books (unless I"m killing the rapist later). I will remember, however, that not everything that looks like rape really is. Motivation does matter (though perhaps not as much as some people think it does).

(c) People can have sex in the craziest positions, places, and times. Seriously, wow. Doubt, admittedly, that that will be a key element in my writing, however.

(d) A story must be more than a showcase for episodes of sex or even for a romantic hookup. Real love is frequently physical, but rarely just physical. If it's all about the love story of two people, but we don't really know who they are or care for them, if it doesn't affect the world around them (or isn't affected by the world around them), chances are it's pretty dull. I knew this already, but it was amazing how two different stories with similar story lines could vary in appeal, enjoyment, and overall readability. Even if the art was inversely proportional in quality to the story. 

(e) Characters, characters, characters. I knew this too, but there's a world of difference in the importance and impact of what happens to characters you're invested in, that you really like, and ones who leave you cold. Even if you don't always like what they do.

(f) No one said you get to choose who you love. Sometimes who you love is damn inconvenient, utterly hopeless, entirely inappropriate, or downright embarrassing . You might never act on that love, either for fear for yourself or in consideration of the object of your affection, but that does not make one's love less compelling or painful or powerful.

(g) No one said you get to choose who you love. Even, sometimes, if the one you love is entirely bad for you, it doesn't mean you can't love them, don't love them, won't love them. I've always been fairly harsh on women who let themselves be abused, at least if they had children. Seeing couples where children aren't a factor reminded me that, even if you leave to save yourself, that doesn't mean you necessarily stop loving someone, no matter how unhealthy that person is for you.

(h) A real connection between people is important for any kind of character interaction (not just romance, though definitely for romance). Stories are more interesting if there are other differences and challenges to overcome (personality, economical, social status, etc.). A story with people who respect each others' work or capabilities, who use those skills to do more than just romp in the bedroom, but interact effectively with the world at large, is far more rewarding than tossing too mismatched people in a room together and calling it love or even friendship. And you have to see those characteristics and strengths, that connection, not just be told the connection exists.

(i) People who are very quirky/off nominal pairings can make for extremely compelling stories. I read one author who's drawing style I don't care for in the slightest, even after reading more than a dozen works. So, why did I read a dozen works? I found them incredibly compelling. Some supernatural, some so freaking original I never saw it coming, some unbelievably sweet. Most were quite short but I found the universally ugly characters won me over time and time again often within a couple pages. I cared about them and always rooted for these often extremely weird couples. I've got more to read and what fodder for livening things up for my own work it is! Proof positive that every love story ain't the same.

(j) Very effective portraits of a characters personality can be drawn (with words in my case) very quickly, often with only a few tiny acts, little things that say something important about who a character really is. It's true when they're drawings, too, but often the gestures and expressions, the little acts, were far more telling than the conversation. You don't need pages of description. I knew that as a short story writer. It's easy to lose sight of that as a novelist, but that quick portrait can be just as effective in long prose (even if, for some characters, who want to study them and learn them over time). I needed the reminder.

(k) Life is messy. If you make it too tidy, it either feels contrived or dull. Neither is good in a story.

(l) Humor makes everything better. I have quite a list of favorites, and the quality you'll find most frequently if you troll through those favorites is funny. Extra points for those mangas that can laugh at themselves.

I enjoyed it, overall. I love to learn, you know. I wonder what I'll stumble into next.


Getting Physical

>> Sunday, November 6, 2011

So, two people of whatever age have become romantically interested in each other, specifically two men have acknowledged this interest to each other. Now, as I'd mentioned in previous posts, if these two guys are already gay and know it, they will probably move on to the next steps with minimal fanfare. They might even have travel sized bottles of lube or condoms in one or more pockets. But that's not particularly interesting to my way of thinking or that different from a similarly armed heterosexual couple comfortable with sex. And yes, I will be talking about it.

I'm more interested in what goes through the mind of someone(s) who never thought he was gay facing up to what that means. I mean, if physicality wasn't any part of the issue, hanging out all day and all evening, every evening, probably wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. That's the up side to same gender friendships (and some heterosexual friendships, actually). In fact, that's one thing that surprised me when I first read yaoi. I've read a LOT of shoujo manga and I can count on one hand the number that have moved beyond kissing and hand-holding, maybe some light groping, to sex. I've now read a LOT of yaoi (written, ironically enough by women for women, remember, just like shoujo) and I can count on one hand the number of manga that have NOT overtly including sex.  Which argues physicality is a key element.

 (No, boys and girls, I won't be putting up any actual sex shots, I swear, just pictures that illustrate my points on how complex the topic is, like this one that's quite pertinent from a practical little one shot called [inexplicably] Wild and Strawberry [link has sexually explicit pictures] by Suzuki Tsuta. But, again, I will be talking about it.)

But, whereas reference is plentiful on what men and women do together, including most sex education courses, and the jigsaw fits neatly, that kind of information is not as readily available and/or things may not be so intuitive for men, even men who have experience with women. There are several key differences known to even the most reticent and I would guess that your young man who'd never really considered male-to-male coupling before would be a bit daunted, quite probably a whole lot embarrassed, and potentially scared out of his mind.

It's not without it's up side, of course, aside from pleasure. One of the reasons why sex with girls is a "big deal," particularly among the younger sets just getting their hormones revving, is that pregnancy is a very real concern. Disease is, too, but, let's face it, most people don't think it can happen to them (which is, sadly, how they get spread), else the pill would not be such a popular method. A girl's got to be (or at least ought to be) careful who she, eh, spreads her legs for because, even today, the bulk of the onus and responsibility for the end results she bears. That particular boogeyman, getting someone pregnant, does not apply in homosexual cases. Disease, however, still does.

Now, there are many that assume gay sex is "just" anal sex, but, according to [warning: link has sexual explicit pictures] Wikipedia, it is far from ubiquitous (~2/3 of gay men) with various alternatives I will not describe here but that are mentioned in passing on the link provided. You are free to do (or not do) your own research.
From Yajuu de Hatsukoi [warning: link has sexual explicit pictures]by Yamato Nase
But it's a non-trivial thing. Places on your own body you probably never thought of anyone but your wife touching (and places you never expected/wanted anyone to touch) will be handled, even licked by someone else, another man. Men can (and have) been overpowered by other men and that's a real fear, too. As someone on the receiving end of sex, it's frightening to give up so much for trust. I don't regret it, but I can tell you, even with everything fitting together and hormones raging, my first experiences (yes plural) were very painful. Technique matters. Fear and anticipation matter, too. Ditto for trust.

That's even more true with something as invasive as anal sex. Technique and lubrication are considered key elements in the comfort of this technique even it's not your first time. And, and I've had no luck finding an answer in the yaoi, I've never figured out how one decides who is going into whom the first time. Is there a special formula? Does someone call dibbs? Is this a source of consternation and friction early on for many new couples? I'm not being flippant; I'm honestly curious. I would think the experience far more daunting for the never-did-it-before receiver than it would for his partner who is largely doing a variation on what is done with women. But if the first time's botched royally, I would expect it would be challenging for either partner to continue, at least together.

You know, that's a lot of pressure. More so than premature ejaculation or not getting your girl off, though perhaps on kilter with not making her first experience painful (though, from what I've heard from friends, most girls don't remember anyone being particularly considerate). The partners involved have to have an extraordinary level of trust and commitment (however physical that is) if they want the pairing to be successful over the longer hall. Talk about performance pressure!

Why talk about this? Because this is something I really haven't addressed before. Physicality is important for male-female romances, too, but it's different and distinct with different requirements, different hangups and different challenges. What's the same is almost as fascinating as what's different.

From a character interaction standpoint, the prospect, anticipation, and follow-through on something like this is outside anything I've written about or thought about. It seems earth-shattering to me, making me very grateful to be a girl, and gives me all kinds of ideas on how to bring intensity of feeling forward in my own writing. The stakes. The responsibilities. The impact.

Damn, I love to learn.


Whole Different Ballgame

>> Saturday, October 29, 2011

Man, time flies. Sorry, sorry, I shouldn't let so much time pass between blog posts. Last post, I was pointing out just how much more some poor slob has at stake acknowledging (to himself) and then communicating his passion for his fellow fellow to said, um, fellow.

I went over it in some length about how it's unlikely you'd make a confession to someone who wasn't important, how that importance, that drive to communicate it just made it that much more to lose and how drastically the recipient (if he's not already established gay) could potentially react to the disclosure of featuring in a buddy's romantic fantasies.

Let's face it, there's a lot more at stake from "You're cute. Wanna go out?" to "I've tried and tried but I can't stop thinking of you. I love you and can't keep this to myself any longer," even if we don't add the gender element. So, yeah, being the man to man up and admit his feelings is no easy task nor one, I'd think, a man would take lightly except in the right environment (like say a gay bar where, hopefully, his odds of finding a prickly non-gay recipient are less).

But what about the other guy on the receiving end of this confession. Let's assume, for one moment that he's not an acknowledged homosexual (though he might be quietly aware of that particular sexual preference) and assume he's not the kind to kill or beat the ever living crap out of someone just because he admitted to caring about him, because, in either case, minimal soul-searching is required. If he's an acknowledged homosexual, he can answer with a similar freedom a heterosexual would have if the confessor were a different gender. If he's answering with violence, again, little thinking is required.

But, between those extremes are a great many situations, many of them uncomfortable. The recipient (Call him Sho just 'cause) for "Jin's" confession could be someone who always considered himself a regular heterosexual guy - could readily be a regular heterosexual guy who's just discovered his friend or a acquaintance likes him and perhaps lusts after his body. Let's assume there's no inclination (at all) for Sho to reciprocate. That's a whole world of hurt you're laying down, but, more than that, you're probably doing a good bit of soul searching on why your friend was gay without you knowing and what it says about you that he found you appealing. I suspect some people could move past the confession and maintain a healthy relationship, but I'd also suspect a large percentage of such people in that position would never look at their friend the same way again. A sad ending to our story, but only a couple of degrees more traumatic than its heterosexual counterpart.

Similarly, if Sho happens to be aware of his own homosexual inclinations (either bisexual or homosexual will work), again he can respond with sensitivity but without much more impact than a heterosexual encounter. One would think that the confessor (Jin) might have an inkling of this and have less to lose as a result, but that might not be the case.

What really gets challenging, however, is when Sho has never considered himself anything but a heterosexual person and yet can't quite dismiss Jin's interest out of hand, for various reasons: the friendship is so valuable/essential that he's willing to pursue more rather than lose it, curiosity, similar feelings he'd not been able to bring himself to acknowledge, etc. All that soul searching Jin had to go through before he could confess, on what his passion said about him as a man, now Sho's got to go through a crash course if he's not going to refuse Jin out of hand (which is almost undoubtedly his gut reaction). He isn't going to have the leisure to consider and work through it indefinitely - Jin is waiting for an answer, with 'bated breath no less. He's going to have to think about what people would say if they found out (because two guys "dating" is easier to spot than one guy with a crush).

Oh, and one more thing. Now they're both going to have to think about the implications of pursuing romance with another guy, the physical side of it. When it was just the dream of one guy, that aspect may have figured prominently (depending, possibly, on his experience level) or been too far beyond his expectations to have figured in it. If both guys are interested in moving forward, however, it's potentially both a bigger deal and a lesser deal than it would be if one were a woman.

And I'll probably talk about that next time, whenever next time is.


Upping the Stakes

>> Tuesday, October 11, 2011

If talking about homosexuality gives you the willies, be warned. I'll be talking about it. On the other hand, maybe you could learn something. I am.

This is one my posts exploring what I'm learning from exploring yaoi manga, which could be seen as boy-on-boy romantic smut (as opposed to "bara" which is generally less romantic and more about the physicality, or so I've read). So, what have I been learning as I delve into a different world, a different environment? Or at least, one type of portrayal of that kind of world? Well, I need to add a couple of disclaimers. What I've been reading, called "yaoi" is actually male-on-male romantic manga generally written by and for women and girls to read. So, one might expect there to be marginal realism. However, it still has given me pause to consider things that are the same and things that are potentially different with regards to a gay couple.

Today, I'm noting the difference in magnitude in confessing a heterosexual romantic interest and confessing a homosexual interest.

Now people around the world don't necessarily have a love confession like is often portrayed in many kinds of manga: "Hey, I really like you. Would you go out with me?" but it really struck me how much more is on the line for a gay guy in that situation. You like someone, even love someone who might be your best friend in the world or someone you barely know that you saw and instantly fell for or just someone you were drawn to.

First, you have to come to grips with it yourself. If you knew you were already inclined that way, preferring men to girls, the fact that you love another man is unlikely to cause you untold soul-searching. True, every overt move toward another man is an opportunity for your preferences to become known (and stigma still attaches to this sort of thing in most societies), but you have probably already come to terms with who you are.

But what if, as frequently happens in what I've been reading, you either haven't known (or acknowledged) your preferences or, as it could be, you don't necessarily have a preference so much as a connection to a certain person who, for whatever reason, calls to your own soul. Maybe you've always dated women without understanding why it never really worked for you, why you couldn't become bone-deep passionate about them? Maybe you don't have a natural preference for a particular gender, but just particular people. Maybe sex has always been impersonal before, gender notwithstanding. But, if you never thought of yourself as a homosexual, before you've confessed to anyone, you have to come to terms with how you feel, what, if anything, that says about you, what that does to your own view of yourself as a man.

Ideally, I'd hope, you realize it doesn't change that, but then it's easy for me to say that. It's not a question I'll likely have to deal with, given that I've pushed three people out of my body. But there's something to be said for how society has inflicted stereotypes and concepts on people. There's nothing in the world that keeps someone homosexual from being a talent or capable athlete or soldier or policeman to teacher or delinquent. It doesn't make you more tough or less so, doesn't determine your favorite color. It doesn't make you a threat to your "buds" who are just friends, or, in fact, to anyone else. In fact, it doesn't really mean a thing except that you love people that come with the same equipment (or at least one person who does).

(There's a big controversy, apparently, because yaoi often portrays this ambiguously without making clear that people are "born" one way or the other. I'm not going to tell anyone gay they were or weren't born that way, but I'm also not going to tell someone else who says they aren't that they were. Not sure there's one and only one answer for everyone. But I don't know; I'm not gay)

That's one of the biggest differences I've been thinking of when comparing the realization you love someone to heterosexual relationships. Even if a relationship is completely inappropriate or impossible for any number of reasons, loving someone of the opposite sex doesn't impart the same level of soul-searching an unsuspecting young man would face when he realizes that the person he loves most, that he wants to touch sexually or to have in his life, is another man.

Girls, you'll be pleased to know that men, if manga is any indication, are no better at communicating with each other than they are communicating with us, at least if romance is involved.

Now, let's say our protagonist (we'll call him "Jin" which is often used to denote "man" or person in Japanese compound words) has wrestled with his soul and come to terms with the realization that he loves another man, that, despite trying to pretend it's friendship or kinship or some other feeling, he is sexually and/or romantically attracted to another man. What does Jin do?

A girl in that situation, or a boy, might be thinking how they could get that feeling reciprocated, or about finding a way to ask the other person out, or be too shy to say anything. But note how much less they have to lose to make a move, whether subtle or overt. A boy can ask a girl out and, if she refuses, that doesn't make it the end of their relationship. They can still be friends or coworkers or whatever. In fact, it's so painless (relatively speaking) that a heterosexual doesn't have to reserve asking someone out until he or she is desperately in love. He or she can ask if someone's just cute or has a nice smell or strikes one the right way. In fact, the less one is already invested in it, the less of a risk it is.

But for Jin who loves another guy, particularly if the guy in question is not overtly gay, it's considerably stickier. If the "guy" is not someone he is deeply attached to, someone he truly loves, why would you risk it? And risk you do, even if your heart isn't on the line. With attitudes as they are, you could get the crap beaten out of you for speaking your heart. Even someone who might not be bothered to find a good friend gay might react violently to find himself the object of affection. Even if violence doesn't break out, ugly words readily could and you've now made clear your sexual orientation to someone who might very well feel antagonistic; i.e. you've take the chance on it all going public (which can ruin someone, even today).

But even if that doesn't happen, even if the object of affection is tolerant and understanding, if he's not of the same mind and inclinations, there's an excellent chance that a friendship or relationship Jin cherishes, perhaps the only contact he has with this person, could be lost or transformed into something entirely different. Every word studied for nuance, every gesture, every touch could be examined and treated with suspicion. Putting the genie back into the bottle ain't that easy.

But what if this guy really is the love of Jin's life? Those of you (like me) who might feel like you've found your soulmate may know what I'm talking about here. If someone is the one, THE one, keeping silent, keeping the distance, being friends may just not be an option. And that just means you're gambling with your very heart, gambling everything because what you want matters that much. The more you are compelled to speak, to act, the more you have to lose, the more it will hurt if your love and heart are rejected with extreme prejudice.

Food for thought. Next, giving some thought to receiving such a confession...


Diving Into the Uncomfortable

>> Thursday, October 6, 2011

There's a saying in writing - "Write what you know." My friend, Darrell B Nelson, says, "Write what you don't know." I'm not an advocate for either approach - both have their benefits and drawbacks - but I'm a strong believer in good characters, strong characters, characters that challenge the mindset of the average (American) reader as they are my most likely audience.

Historically, my characters have been, to an extent, modeled on myself or my husband, on people we know and interacted with, combined with varying amounts of imagination. I'll still do that, but I want to give my characters more depth and an expanded viewpoint from what I have. So, as a lover of knowledge and advocate for research, I have always exhaustively delved into cultures and histories that fascinated me. Since my interests are eclectic, that means I can name most kings of England and not a single one for Prussia, for example (in fact ,that whole Prussia/Holy Roman Empire thing still confuses me a bit). I've read Russian history and studied it for my own edification. I've read about the different Chinese dynasties and histories and the same with Japan. I find it fascinating, noting particularly the differences in how cultures deal with different but comparable issues.

That education in multi-culturism (which is not, by any means, complete) helps me when world building or culture building so I'm not restricted to Western notions of life or right and wrong, etc. I can tailor necessities to the circumstances. Some of what I learned made me more confident pointing out physical differences and addressing those between characters (i.e. characters of different color or, in some cases, species). I've frequently butted headfirst into the stereotypes of men and women as well, using, defying or ignoring them as required to tell a good story.

Well, I've stumbled onto a new area of research that I haven't really pursued before, through a very unexpected source. Smut.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've stumbled over smut before. I have seen a representative smattering of what I tend to think of as man smut (like pornographic films and the like), which has never appealed to me, and more than my fair share of woman smut, usually in the form of "romance" novels but often having no more soul than the average stag film (and frequently objectifying women as much or more than the male counterpart) . I don't object to sex in my novels (or films), but novels or films that are nothing but excuses to parade prurient scenes have never interested me.

Novels that tell good stories that have believable/likable/fascinating characters where sex also occurs, however, I've always enjoyed just fine. Possibly still counting as smut, but not JUST smut. Smut with substance, or is that an oxymoron?

Well, I've found a hitherto untapped selection of smut, different than I'm used to, and I have to admit my interest has been piqued. Just as shoujo manga rekindled my interest in romantic stories by having characters I loved and cherishing people who actually were capable of adult self-control (as opposed to those romances full of "adults"), I have discovered a resource for expanding my outlook on a group of people I'm woefully ignorant of: homosexuals.

Now, if you get the willies just hearing the term or are militantly anti-gay, you might as well stop reading here. And this will probably bleed over into several posts, so you're forewarned. On the other hand, if you want to expand what you understand on this subject, as I did, perhaps you should read forward, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Now, just because I'm not confident to write a gay persona doesn't mean I don't know any gay people. I do. Quite probably more than I think I do. Nor have I ever had the slightest heartburn with people finding happiness with whoever made them happiest, gender notwithstanding. I have never felt otherwise and don't now.

But I also knew that, as a heterosexual girl, I had very little insight into the world of same-gender romance, lifestyles and interactions. Even where I could speculate regarding girls, I was hopelessly clueless when it came to gay men except what I've seen peripherally in films and such. For that reason, I have really not assayed gay characters. I don't object to them, but I'd want to portray them realistically. I know they're people like anyone else, but they have different issues than many of the rest of us.

Recent, an otaku acquaintance of mine suggested a number of mangas, including "Betrayal Knows My Name" which I'm enjoying. Apparently, there's a yaoi element attached to it (yaoi being the manga term for boy-boy romantic manga, which is popular with girls too, apparently), so bunches of yaoi jumped into my amazon.com recommendations. So, although I'd never been interested in it, I checked some out.

And became fascinated.

Not with the acts depicted (and most are pretty graphic about it) nor about wishing I could indulge. I'm not properly equipped and the flexibility required (apparently) is rather daunting. I became fascinated with the stories, the scenarios, the characters in this or that yaoi.

Now, don't get me wrong, much of it is smut smut, in the truest sense of the word: "stories" and characters brought together with little fanfare as an excuse to show sex. That pales quickly. And, yaoi, even more than man porn but perhaps less than woman porn, lends itself to force and violence more than average. Stories at least skirting the edge of pederasty are also common (at least in the one's I've read so far), so not all good. I don't like rape or child abuse, I don't care which genders are involved. (Note, however, that "child" is a term I'm using loosely since the age of consent in Japan is 13 and everyone is well over that.).

But, I have also found profound food for thought, not only into the challenges and interactions for gays, particularly in a world that stigmatizes them based on their sexual preferences, but also in what they're looking for, how they interact, and both the parallels and disconnects with romantic relationships between men and women. Also, what makes them different from "regular" men and what doesn't.

So, though what I'm learning is coming from manga, where I'll best be able to use what I learn is writing, so I'll be writing about it here.

Starting next time.


How I'll Know I'll Have Made It

>> Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'm not talking about being published, though, of course, that would likely have to happen first. And I'm not talking about book sales, though, naturally, that would be nice, too.

But I don't just want to be a successful writer in the monetary sense. I want to write good books, books that touch people with characters that people care about. And I think I know now how to to know when that happens.

I spend odd moments checking on the Skip Beat! forum using my new android phone. It's a nice distraction and I enjoy speculating about what will be happening next in this long-running manga and gushing over it with other enthusiasts. 'Cause, hey, I'm an otaku. But I've discovered something.

You know when characters have really touched people when readers get really really angry defending one over the other or determining who's better at this or that. Star Trek, you find some true fans, start laying into one captain or another and they'll come out swinging.

I've been listening to the talk on the forum, one of the threads all about which of our romantic leads, who both struggled in childhood, had it harder or more painful. The son of the celebrity quietly struggling to live up to his father's regard and dealing with brutal bullying vs. the girl ignored and marginalized by a mother who left her in the care of others most of her life.

We've only seen flashbacks on the two individuals and have some information on the impact each of their pasts have had on them. Both are strong individuals with scars and baggage they are largely working through together. Why in the world would it matter which had it technical harder than the other.

But people get passionate and figuratively shake fists and forgo courtesy, telling anyone who doesn't see it "their" way they're stupid or they aren't reading things, yadda yadda yadda.

I'm not saying I want people to become assholes because they care about the characters in my books, but it says something, something important, that a reader can be passionate about a character, passionate about who they end with , what happens to them, how other fans see the characters they love.

When readers get spun up defending your characters, as a writer it says that you wrote characters that touched people, that pulled out emotion, that mattered to people enough they would defend the fictional histories or personalities traits to other readers.

That's what I want my readers to do. When I have readers fighting among themselves on whether Dylan Chroz or Xander would win the bout on Jeopardy! (which is silly because Dylan would win unless Dante da Silva was playing, what with his 700+ years of experience to draw on). I want people to yell at the book, "Watch out!" or "You bastard!" or "You just made a real mistake, pal."

When people defend the people I've created against other fans, that's when I'll know:

I've done it. I've touched them and made up people that strangers have adopted, loved and identified with.

I'll have done what I set out to do.



>> Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You ever been hit with scenes so quickly you can't get 'em on paper quick enough? And, of course, they would bombard me when I'm working overtime like mad for three weeks.

Not necessarily in the order I'm writing it, of course. I'm planning some rather complex interactions between characters and I've been having fun thinking of scenes between all my interesting characters. In fact, before I know it, they've gotten away from me and I know I'm dabbling in books I'm not even writing yet.

Not that I'm having trouble when I sit down and move forward in the actual book, during those brief snatches of time when I can actually write. It seems to flow pretty effortlessly, too. So, I can't complain...

Except, with so many scenes and so little time, blogging is likely to fall by the wayside until I get a lull in something, either my work schedule or the flood of scenes I enjoy.


Paranormal vs. Fantasy/Science Fiction

>> Sunday, September 4, 2011

I was reading a series of books a friend recommended to me, quite a successful series I believe, the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton that should have been right up my alley. Some attempts at humor, generally kickass heroine who is center stage, weird happenings everywhere.

Except I didn't. Nothing wrong with those that like it. We can't all like the same things. There were a few reasons for this for me, and I can go into them, but I'm not sure they're all important. What I noted after reading the first book was that I only liked one character, Jean-Claude (because apparently becoming a vampire negates the necessity of a last name), a vampire Anita threatened to kill a few times and who was in, what, fifty pages of the book? I liked him well enough to try a second book, but kept running into the same issue (and a few new ones). I just didn't like the main character. There were a few reasons for this, too, like hypocrisy and doing idiotic things, being blase about killing her "friends" one minute and willing to die for them the next, etc. But I could have forgiven all of that if I had liked the essential her. And I figured out why: to her, what you are is more important than who.

One reason I generally haven't been part of the recent vampire fetish (Twilight doesn't count - they're nothing like vampires and besides, that's not why I liked it) is because I never understood the big deal with vampires. They've never seemed inherently interesting. Having a story centered around vampires, to my way of thinking, isn't any different in concept from having a story centered around Elves in Middle Earth or lizardians on Seti Omega Nine. They're all stories about people, whether gifted or scaly or sparkly or what-have-you. The rules and priorities change, depending on specific needs, but the story about people inherently is the same. That's how it is to me, because I was raised on Science Fiction and Fantasy, on the original Star Trek, on Heinlein. In Fantasy/Science Fiction, who you are always outranked what you were. It was one way you had to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Bad guys were all concerned with the color of your skin, whether you had hair or feathers, which end you broke on your boiled egg. Good guys either knew better or learned better over the course of the story.

What seems to be going on in paranormal is an entirely different thing, where being some sort of something different inherently makes one evil. True, you might fight your evil side and, if you can fight it indefinitely, you could be accepted as redeemed by normal people, but you don't get the benefit of the doubt. You're evil until proven otherwise. And there are no limits to the level or extent of evil you are as something "other," it comes with the extra powers like a promotional extra. So, if you're a protagonist who happens to be something other, you have to indefinitely fight the inherent evil in you. If you're not an "other," you can kill all the others you like to your hearts content, 'cause, hey, they're evil.

To me that's a throwback to the "The only good Injun is a dead Injun," and "Only good Jew is a dead Jew," kind of thinking I've always abhorred. And, truthfully, thought we were finally outgrowing. Pity.

I have a problem with that kind of thinking. I don't think anything is inherently evil (or, for that matter, inherently good). I think how someone is treated should a direct result of what they do and who they are, not what they happen to be (unless that's something like a serial rapist). In my books, that notion is a recurring theme, the basis for how my characters interact and grow. I had started to worry that the notion was outdated, that I'd be preaching to the choir.

Apparently not.

Guess I don't write paranormal after all.


The Vagaries of Writing

>> Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I do not write like many other writers. Many people are advocates for the write-every-day-no-matter-what method and more power to them. I can't do that. It's not laziness on my part, though, of course, I am lazy. I literally cannot write like that because my brain works differently than normal people. While I go through my day to day reading and workin' and blogging and reading blogs, and otakuing, and watching kids and stuff, my subconscious takes everything I'm exposed to and plays with it, tweaks it, fillets it, combining it with work I started but that petered out or was going in the wrong direction, and ideas I've had that I haven't quite figured out what to do with.

Then, most likely when I'm desperately busy with something, it will push out the new story and say, "Write this, write this now" and I'll be filling every free minute (and not so free minute) with writing and crafting and putting down dialog and refining a few details my subconscious left so my conscious mind wouldn't feel useless. The good news is that it will come out (based on the last four works) pretty clean, with perhaps a little rearranging and a bit of polishing but really not requiring a serious overhaul. And, as I write it, I'll love it like I'm my own fan, tickled at my own jokes and falling in love with this or that character. It's sadly narcissistic but there you have it.

It's, in fact, very gratifying to write that way...except, in between these sessions where I'm all but hemorrhaging fiction, I have nothing to write and feel a bit useless. This is compounded by the realization that my subconscious is clearly working on something but, and this is the kicker, I have no idea what it might be. It could be something I started that needs to be finished. It could be the next sequel in my Bete novel series. It could be my husband's novel he's been wanting me to finish for some bloody time now (though that's partially his fault - we've written nearly 200,000 words on it, but we have to keep starting over as his idea grows up). It could be a couple of the ideas I've been kicking around that I think have promise.

Or it could be something completely different, something I hadn't even thought of. So that all the work I have languishing will continue to languish as I gush over something completely unexpected (which happened last time). Pity really. I like much of the stuff that's languishing, but I'm afraid to tackle it without my subconscious (which does the GREAT writing) in case it gets all uppity and refuses to help at all. Which it is prone to do. Sigh.

It could just be that my subconscious wants me to start actively marketing the work it's already done. Which is actually a good idea.

Sigh again.


Sensual Romance Part 2

>> Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Here, I'm just going to talk about guidelines I use when incorporating sensuality+romance in my books. These are things I bear in mind when I write it as well as features/aspects I like when I read a book. Use them only if it works for your own work: there are no hard and fast rules here.

Use all the senses. I've said this repeatedly but it's the one thing I see happen over and over again. Taste, smell, touch, sound and sight can all be used, but also physical reactions, how the individual(s) involved (depending on POV) are actually feeling, how they're reacting, sounds and movements they make. That's another thing...

Don't make it too static. Have the characters gasp and tremble and stroke and move, sweat and slide. Sensuality is to titillate the senses and get a reaction. If your character isn't reacting, your reader likely isn't either.

Get emotionally involved. Physical reactions, including lust, are all well and good but it's not romance unless you have something else as well. That doesn't mean that the emotions have to be in every scene (or even every sensual scene), but if you never tie the sensuality with the romance, the romance will likely fall flat and or the sensuality can seem impersonal. Or both.

Sex does not equal romance. Lust is often associated with romance for good reason and losing control has it's own appeal; however, romance (by my definition) requires a pointed interest in the other person's happiness, which means restraint of that lust or curbing one's own passion can be far more romantic than losing control entirely, particularly if one's partner is not in the same place yet. Or in love at all for that matter. Sexual/romantic tension, in fact, can be quite effective in involving the reader (one could make an argument that sexual/romantic tension is the primary draw for the Twilight series, but I digress). My point is you don't have to jump into sex over and over again in order to get the most from your sensuality+romance.

Leaven your use of sensuality+romance. Just like sensuality (non-romantic) lost it's punch if you use it all the time, same goes for the romantic kind. If your characters are spending every other page mooning, touching, breathing each other's air, etc, those scenes where you really want to draw the reader in or really move the relationship forward can be leeched of their impact. A healthy relationship is more than physical interaction. A successful romance is ideally between individuals that are both contributing to the relationship, people who can talk and interact and work together effectively. Hopefully, there's more going on in the book than just billing and cooing.

You don't have to describe everything. I know, I know, I talked about movement and senses, etc. But there are things that can be implied and, in general, every little movement and/or sexual act does not have to be described in detail. What you want is the reader involved. Once you've pulled them in, chances are they can fill in the blanks themselves. Let them. Part of the charm of books is that your imagination fills in between the lines, so sometimes less is best. Use your best judgement.

Mix it up. Don't make all the scenes sound the same. Using a formula for a romantically sensual scenes is a sure way to dilute them. In real life, people may be creatures of habit, but inflicting that kind of reality on a reader is a good way to send a reader looking elsewhere for entertainment.

Hmm. You know, I think I might just be done with this topic.


Sensual Romance Part 1

>> Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Though sensuality can be used effectively for all kinds of things (suspense, action, grief, relief, etc), there's a reason why it's often thought of in conjunction with love and sex (not necessarily in that order). Romances, sneered at by much of the literary world, are routinely bestsellers (at least the better ones). That's not a fluke.

Writing sensuality well can bring a book or character to life. Combine it with an element of romance effectively portrayed, the reader can fall in love. And that's not limited to romance novels. I probably have 300-400 books on my "favorite, read over and over" shelves in my bedroom. I can probably count on my fingers (if not one hand) how many are completely devoid of romantic elements (note, in some cases, there are books in a series where several aren't romantic while the overall series has a strong element of romance). These are the books I pull down and read over and over, books I fell in love with years ago and still read with fresh eyes at almost every opportunity. There are historical novels (Clavell, Michener, Stewart), classics (Dumas, Brontë, Austin, Hugo), mystery (Sayers, Robb), action/thriller (Ludlum, King), tons of science fiction and fantasy and, yes, romance (Roberts, Heyer). It should be noted that, for those authors I'm passionate about, there are similar rabid fans out there as well. (That's not even counting the manga; ALL of my manga have strong streaks of romance).

Romance, in fact, makes a fine pairing with books that have other strong emotional elements, like thrillers or horror, action-heavy novels, science fiction/fantasy (given that interracial/intercultural elements are often best portrayed through romance) or dramatic fiction (depending on the topic). Thrillers, in particular, do well with romance because there is something particularly compelling about people in fear for someone else as opposed to merely concerned about their own safety. Ditto for people putting themselves in harm's way for love of someone else. Swashbuckling rescuing types never entirely go out of style, though venue and gender can vary a great deal more than it used to. People like to identify with people they can admire and it's a great deal easier to admire someone striving to save someone else, than someone cowering in fear for him or herself (even if that fear is completely justified). Romance readily provides a motive acceptable to most. Fighting might be cool; fighting for somethingor someone is compelling.

My point is that, just because you're not writing romances, doesn't mean you can't take advantage of the sensuality+romance power. I don't think it's a coincidence that James Cameron (director of the far and away most financially successful movies world-wide) almost always injects a key romantic element, even in such hard-core stories like Terminator. I'm not saying that's the only reason he's successful (not hardly), but I think he thinks he believes in romance on his resume (if not his marriage record).

Which doesn't mean a writer has to have it. I do, but clearly I like romance (even if I'm not a fan of most romance novels). What I'm saying is that romance can be a compelling part of any kind of novel. But, as was the case for sensuality and romance as stand alone elements, skill is required to use it effectively. Clumsy "sensual romance" is about as appealing as homemade pudding you find in your fridge six months later. Which is why I don't read most romance novels. Ironic, no?

True, not everyone is as picky as I am, but on this blog, it's all about my efforts to write the best I can write and my personal guidelines (that other writers might or might not like). Half-assed or ineffective sensual romance doesn't interest me in the slightest. That means, when I talk romance, I'm talking about my own view on what romance is (described here) so you might have to adapt it to your own view on romance if you want to use my advice.

More next time...


Sensuality and Romance: Part Four

>> Thursday, July 21, 2011

So. let's say you get the concept (I'm sure you do) that sensuality is all about pulling on the senses and tugging reactions from the characters. While it's not just about sex, it is about passion, being involved emotionally and physically in what is going on.

My "sensual" scene last time, as you probably noted, was not about sex or romance in any way, and you can inject a great deal of sensuality in any kind of literature without having to have a love interest or even a sexual partner. Scenes, for example, like where Sully is exploring the surface of Pandora, facing off against the bulky herbivore and then the clearly carnivorous panther analog lend themselves well to sense description and emotional reactions. Those are scenes that lend themselves well to sensuality, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Hearts race, fear engulfs or minds wonder.

A scene like that is far more effective when given the immediacy that sensuality can provide. In fact any scene where the character in question is struggling with the extremes of emotion can generally be served well with a dose of sensuality: the pain of being left broken after a beating, and the hatred or determination that's required to get back up and face your attacker, the sense of wonder as a small child greets the tiny creature his parents tell him is his new sister, the heartbreak when our hero breaks in only to find he's too late as he picks up the shattered body of his wife. Sensuality breathes life into scenes like this and can brand them indelibly on a reader's mind, quickening heartbeats, inducing tears. Really, isn't that a little bit why we all do this?

Of course, you can certainly use it for simple no-strings physical pleasure, too. Yes, sex. Nothing wrong with doing so, and any number of authors have characters that wend their way through their worlds enjoying the sins of the flesh without getting bogged down in anything so ridiculous as romance. But, be careful. Sensuality is partly about reaction, and sex where you don't feel much beyond the physical is going to be less powerful, in many ways, than sex where your emotions are more fully engaged (which is true in life, too, if my history is any example, but I digress). And you can rapidly lose sympathy with a character unless everyone involved leaves pretty much heart-whole. Start breaking the hearts of innocent maidens with your conquests and, pretty soon, you look like a schmuck (unless, of course, that's the kind of anti-hero you're going for). In any case, when using sensuality in this way, don't forget that you need multiple senses brought in and some form of reaction from your character in order to get the most impact.

A few other thoughts on sensuality in general (romance notwithstanding). While sensuality does great things for pivotal or powerful scenes and a little sensory description is good almost everywhere, try not to go too overboard with your sensuality for every scene. Two reasons for this recommendation:

(1) If every scene has our hero/heroine brought to the extremes of emotion, conflicted or anguished by emotion, the scenes start to all sound the same. I should not be as worked up over running out of toothpaste as I am that my daughter has run off with her boyfriend (whether he has piercings in his tongue or not). By making all the scenes emotionally charged, I take some of the power from the scenes where I need to make an impression, want to really feel a change is in works. Use the power of emotion and senses on those scenes that mean the most to the rest of the story, so that they are not diluted.

(2) Sensuality, done well, stops or slows action. If I'm spending a lot of time talking about what I'm seeing/hearing/tasting/smelling/feeling and my reaction to it, I'm not really doing much. Which doesn't mean you can't tie it with action, but you want to limit it to between action steps and not get carried away with three pages of descriptive ecstasy and two paragraphs of actual movement.

A light touch (lighter than I used yesterday) and a little judgement can do wonders for making the most of the senses, without slowing the story down or diffusing its power.

And, yes, I will eventually be putting sensuality and romance together.


Sensuality and Romance: Part Three

>> Sunday, July 17, 2011

I changed the title for those of you who were confused by the French. Also, warning, I'm going to talk about sex. Perhaps graphically. (No, RM, I don't know what I'm going to write here any more than I preplan what I'm writing when I do fiction).

I said one could do love, even deeply moving passionate romantic-type love, without expressing the sensuality inherent to that type of thing...but it was challenging to do so effectively.

Expressing sensuality without the romantic aspects is easy-peasy; however, in a way the same goes. Anyone can write about passion. Not everyone does it well. Not by a long shot.

One key reason for that, and the reason I chose sensuality in the title rather than passion, is that the descriptions of passion are frequently short on sensual description, which is fatal. Sensuality is all about titillating the senses, not just sight, but sound, touch, smell and taste as well. More than that, it's the reaction to those senses, what one feels. It's easy to lose sight of that, but sensuality is more than just sex, though it's frequently what comes to mind. It's the steeping of senses and the resulting emotions and actions.

For instance, for that picture that started all this, the story I wrote wasn't particularly sensual. If I'd wanted to focus on the sensuality of the picture, I could have limited myself to describing what was going on in the picture in terms of senses and emotions with no back story.

Pain pulsed through Lawrence as his finger ached to pull the trigger, kill the monster once and for all. Kilee was a demon, his sworn enemy. Untrustworthy, evil, bringing only devastation in his wake. Proof of that was the blood Lawrence shed in answer to Kilee's sharpened nails, warm sticky blood that stained his demon-hunter uniform. The radiating pain for those scores both tore at away at Lawrence's decency, demanding that he kill in response, and stayed his hand. As it was, Lawrence had already lost too much blood, could feel it pooling and cooling on his chest, could feel his heartbeat growing sluggish, starved of blood. His head swam and his hand shook, as his life flooded his front in a crimson wave, mocking him with its coppery smell. Death was inevitable. Unless.

He had enough strength left, physically, he could kill the demon who had deliberately killed him. Lawrence had Kilee where he wanted, in his grasp, his gun aimed at Kilee's head to kill him once and for all. But Kilee could say the same. Even with a gun to his head, Kilee knew Lawrence could hardly kill him when Kilee had the means for saving him. Kilee had cut his own throat and let his blood, the sweet verdant blood of the demons, trickle free to tempt Lawrence, an elixir that would heal Lawrence for this and all future ills. The smell of Kilee's blood overpowered the salty scent of his own blood with its seductive fragrance, the blood a drug so that Lawrence could not pull the trigger and kill this demons once and for all.

Kilee knew, of course, and there was no fear for himself when he spoke, "You need only one sip."

"Never," Lawrence gasped, his slowing heart beat echoing in his ears. His own voice sounded weak and distant.

Kilee laughed and touched his finger to his own blood. "Liar," he said. He touched the bloody finger to Lawrence's lips. Lawrence shuddered, not in disgust so much as ecstasy as he tasted the ambrosia of demon blood. The next instant, his mouth was pressed desperately against Kilee's throat, drinking deeply of that most hated blood, tasting its savory sweetness fill his mouth, hearing himself gulp it greedily, feeling it's healing warmth relieve his heart's burden and bring warmth to his cooling extremities. His fogging mind took on a sharp clarity it had never before known.

Pulling the trigger now would accomplish nothing. Kilee had already won, making Lawrence a demon with the sacrifice of Kilee's own blood. Kilee had proven his point as Lawrence had saved his own life at the expense of his soul.

No bullet would ever change that.

(Yes, I know there's story in that, too. Can't help it, as I explained at the time). Even without understanding the ins and outs of the characters or the real aspect of demons, this is a very powerful scene. Sensual description changes a pivotal occurrence into an an event that stirs emotions and drag the reader into picture. Describing it plainly wouldn't change the actual significance to the story, but it would not be as compelling or powerful without feeling Lawrence's pain and conflict. It makes the characters stronger, more sympathetic, more powerful. It helps weave that magic that lets a reader lose themselves in another world.

Compare that to something like this:

He needed the money she held in her hand. Somewhere, his wife coughed away, caught by the horrific disease that killed within days. The cure, quick and effective, was available only to those with money, money like this woman was offering so casually.

"What do you want from me?"

She licked her lips. "You know what I want." Yeah, he did. A woman looks like this, she wants a man in her. If he hadn't known, her fingers at her buttons, removing her shirt would have told him.

It's not like she wasn't beautiful. Her eyes might be hard, but her body was as curvy and appealing as only money could buy. When she unfastened her belt and let her pants slip down to the ground, he could see her ass was just as round and perfect, the kind of body that made a man's mouth water. Of course he wanted her. Who wouldn't?

He cleared his throat, but didn't move his eyes from her body. "I'm married."

"So am I. I'm not asking for a wedding ring, loverboy. I just want a little of your body temporarily."

His body was responding, his fingers already pulling at his clothes. "I'm not a gigolo."

"Sure you're not," she purred as she slid her body next to him, and kissed his neck. "Take me."

He said nothing more, just lifted her perfect body and buried himself in it, grunting as the passion over took him, blinding himself to anything and everything but this act. This woman. This feeling. This need.

When it was over, he felt drained, but not satisfied. "Thanks, loverboy," she offered, leaving the money on the counter where her ass had been seconds before. She was dressed and back to looking slick and perfect within minutes. "Feel free to leave the money if you don't really think you're a gigolo. We both know you wanted me, too."

His fingers scooped up the money as if she would change her mind. She just laughed as she left. He could save his wife now, he told himself. That was the important thing. But she'd never forgive him if she knew where he'd gotten the money, how he'd gotten it. She'd never believe he hadn't wanted to do it for his own sake.

And she'd be right.
Can you see the difference in that? How little power this pivotal event has comparatively? How much harder it is to sympathize with the man, even though, on the surface, his motivation is more noble. The act has far less power, not as much because it meant nothing, but because his involvement is ambiguous. We don't really see or feel the conflict. We're told he wanted her, but we don't feel it or get dragged in. It was actually really really hard to write that without putting in more sensuality and conflict. Writing that way is habit-forming, yet I've seen many key passages in published books as cold and flavorless as this...or worse.

I'll continue with sensuality without romance next time since this post is long enough. See you later.


Sensuality and L'Amour: Part Two

>> Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shakespeare mentioned that she preferred sensuality to romance. Well, I'm not a big one for sensuality without romance, but I have to agree that romance without any sensuality generally doesn't do it for me either.

Love without any physicality, any contact, any sense of touch or scent or taste is, well, flavorless and bland unless the writer is very very good. Can it be done? Yes. Austen and Heyer, both writers I admire, even love, wrote about or during periods of time where discussing scent was probably a mistake and when touch was mostly taboo. Somehow, they managed to convey humor and affection, love, even passion, with dialog and with a few well-chosen descriptions (sight and sound).

But, it's a lot more work.

He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:

"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."

That's Pride and Prejudice and, I have to admit, especially taken out of context, it's hard to recreate the romance. Having said that, I know I'm not the only woman out there who still gets a thrill from the book, old-fashioned and chaste though it might be. If my imagination must provide the scenes left modestly out of the text, I am given characters and a sense of the emotional pull that drives them. For someone with an imagination like mine, that's enough.

But saying "XXX loves YYY" isn't enough, not even if you pull out your thesaurus and find a dozen synonyms for "love." Romance and non-romantic love has to be sold to the reader, demonstrated through word and deed. Can I tell you how to do it?

I can tell you how I do it, but not everyone sees love like I do. There are certain minimum parameters involved in love, in my mind, that include modicums of self-sacrifice, understanding, trust, protectiveness and friendliness. For romance, I usually add a measure of yearning, whether or not that desire is fulfilled.

That means that getting "it" is not more important than the happiness of the one you love. If "it" is, that's not my definition of romance. Oftimes, self-restraint is romantic. Love can mean protecting the one you love (and that's not gender specific to me). Love can mean being happy in each others company and dealing with your loved one as honestly as possible.

Nor is love limited to kisses and proposals. Love can mean doing things you'd never do for your own sake (up to and including protecting yourself). Love can mean believing something even when all the evidence argues against it. Love might be reflected in something as simple and meaningful as forgiveness or patience or gentleness.

That also means that love can be portrayed any number of ways quite effectively without contact like the hopeless empathy of the fictional Cyrano de Bergerac or the supreme sacrifice of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities.

But that's how I see romance. If you want to inject romantic elements into your book, you have to decide what you see love as and make sure those elements are reflected in the work itself. Romance in a novel is one of those things that must be shown, not told, or it comes across as flat and colorless. Unless, of course, that's what you see love as. :)

Next time, sensuality without romance.


Sensuality and L'Amour: Part One

>> Friday, July 8, 2011

So, that was some picture last time, right? My daughter (16) who reads the same manga, brought it in to me saying, "You know, I'm not into guy on guy, but this is like the sexiest picture ever." I agreed, which is quite ironic given that the two men in the picture are not only not romantically involved but hate each other profoundly, largely because they both love the same woman. And both are in this picture, in this posture, as a direct result of that love. Zero (the one with the gun) so he wouldn't be driven mad and Kaname (getting slurped) because the woman he love cherishes Zero and he wants Zero beholden to himself so he can protect the girl when Kaname can't do it himself.

Now, why am I talking about this? Because it occurred to me that I hadn't talked much about sensuality and romantic love with regards to writing, and I think it's important. Not just because I'm a hopeless romantic (though, I am), but because this kind of relationship is a common one, not just in romance novels but every other genre as well. Even if the romance isn't central to the story or the primary protagonist(s), it's quite likely to factor as part of the motivation behind one or more other characters. When I talked about relationships earlier as part of the recipe for making a good story, this was one of the key kinds of relationships I was talking about.

I bring up the picture from last time to start the discussion by making you aware of the difference I see between sensuality and romance. The picture I pointed out was very sensual, obviously touching on more than one sense. Yes, yes, I know a picture is visual, but there was a sense of touch (wet blood), taste and smell (same wet blood, possibly gunpowder), movement and emotion. It would not take much to imagine the sounds. The picture was provocative (I presume deliberately so) and sexy.

What it wasn't (without knowing the back story) was romantic.

I bring this up because, far too often in my opinion, many novels don't make the distinction and trot out relationships that are filled to bursting with lust and sensual description but no depth beyond that. Sadly, a frightening larger percentage of these novels are labeled "romances" but I digress.

Now, I'm not against sensuality by any means. I love it. Nor do I think a book can't have sensuality without romance. But, as a writer, I think you should know the difference and understand what your characters have and why. Then write accordingly. Why? Because clumsy sensual scenes are far less objectionable if you have a real romance on your hands. People who are in love are frequently stupid or nonsensical. But, if your book is filled with sensuality, but no real love, you need to make sure you're doing your sensuality well. Cause crappy sensuality with no love is basically bad porn.

I mean, if you're going to write pornography, make it good at least. Sheesh.


Telling a Picture's Story

>> Friday, July 1, 2011

Some time back, Relax Max did an exercise on his blog where he took a picture and wrote a scene to describe it, as if you were putting that scene in a book. Naturally, I had to try my hand at that, too. At the time, I assured him, I'd return the favor when I'd found just the right picture.

Well, boys and girls, here's a winner from Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino. And, hey, it doesn't even have dialog to get in the way. You don't have to assume vampires, of course, but then that will mean pushing the ol' imagination just a bit further. Me too, especially since I know the real characters. It's interesting enough I might talk about that on the next post since my daughter and I had a conversation about it. But first, the exercise (click for a bigger version of the picture)!

When Kadon opened his door to the pounding that sounded even over the wind, he was unsurprised to see someone so close to death. After all, with his home just outside the village walls, his was frequently the first place--the only place--a survivor could go. A glance told him this one had only moments yet to live. Blood stained his shirt, his hands, from a vicious slashes to the throat. Kadon shook his head and tried to close the door.

The man surprised him by wedging his body into the door before Kadon could close it. His body might be fading, but his spirit was strong. Oh well, those were the ones most likely to be attacked by the nightbeasts. It was miraculous he had made it this far. "Please," the man begged.

Kadon was not a sympathetic soul but felt something approaching pity. "There is nothing to be done. Your wounds are too grievous."

"We were attacked! The Queen--," That explained the uniform and the foolhardiness of anyone out in these woods at night. The Queen, famed for her sorcery, probably thought her magic could protect her against the nightbeasts. "You have to save her!" The smell of blood was overwhelming and sweet, familiar...appealing.

"She's hardly my problem," Kadon said, but left the door open so the man could stumble in. "I doubt there is naught left to save if any were foolish enough to try to do so." Kadon felt his voice grow cold. "She and her armies have all but eliminated the nightbeasts in every corner of the country save here. She was an idiot to think she could pass through their last remaining stronghold unscathed."

The man had fallen to his knees and Kadon unconsciously crouched in front of him to catch his rasping whisper. "No...choice. Capital...ransacked...by...Daynor. No...where...to...run."

Daynor! Kadon would have stood at that, but the man grabbed him by the shirt, his fancy pistol still in his bloodstained hands. "That's impossible," Kadon said. Kadon was no friend to the Queen, but anyone was better than the Black Viper of Westrim. Death Merchant. Soulstealer. The Queen had been brutal in suppressing those magical factions she deemed a threat, but at least those were clean deaths, not the unholy experiments Daynor favored, the tortures and torments he reveled in.

"No...time..." the man gasped, pulling on Kadon with his last bit of strength. "Must...save...Queen..."

"I told you. It's too late for her unless she's in your pocket. It's even too late for you. If she was the sorceress she claimed to be, she should have found some way to escape."

"She...did..." the man breathed and, to Kadon's shock, latched his mouth to his neck, over the artery. At first, Kadon thought he meant to attack until he felt the cold shock of another soul entering his body, his mind, trying to subvert him as the man's body fell, lifeless, to the floor.

You, he accused. You will not take me over as easily as this man.

The unmistakable essence of the Queen laughed, though it was not a joyful sensation. Good. A weak man would not serve my purpose nor leave me any hope to regain my country.

You will not possess me.

Perhaps. I've a strong will, too. But you will not easily be quit of me either.

Kadon felt the truth of those words. But then, he knew something the Queen did not. You should have found a different host, Majesty. I am not an ordinary man.

With no effort, he transformed, shredding his bloody clothes with his massive new form: King Panther. Without a word, he began to feed on the warm flesh and last vestiges of spirit remaining in the Queen's henchman.

If he expected her horror, he waited in vain. She was so silent as he began his feast he wondered if she had, indeed, fled until she spoke at last with smug satisfaction.



Wasted Potential: Walk the Walk

>> Thursday, June 23, 2011

You may have noticed, as we've added elements to our gourmet story, that it gets more complicated to get all the aspects to work together. Idea, setting, characters, interaction between characters and dialogue... Getting any one aspect to kick ass by itself isn't enough. They each need to be optimized and work together. But all of that won't mean a thing if nothing happens.

You're going to need a plot. Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction, my blog or both, you'll note that plot ain't my best subject. And I've never pretended it was. So, you might be asking yourself what I could possibly advise when it comes to plot. Good question.

So, here's my disclaimer. If you want insight into how to derive complex and meaningful plots and eat into a reader's brain to leave an impression to last the rest of their lives - you're in the wrong place. That ain't my bag. But, just because I'm not a plot-driven author doesn't mean I don't know anything about what makes a story work and, more importantly, what doesn't. What you'll see here is my own take on basic plot do's and don'ts.

Before I get started on my own guidelines, I'd like to point out something I think is important. Plot is more than just action and forward movement; it's also cause and effect. Plot points lead to actions and movement, but they have to match and make sense just like characters do. The weaker the plot point (particularly those that are pivotal to the rest of the story), the weaker the story. Like say, a spaceport that only takes local currency and has no method of converting outworld money, including currency used by the rest of the galaxy. Think about it if it doesn't immediately strike you as asinine. If you have a rabid fanbase of fanatical supporters that will swallow anything, you might be able to get away with something so idiotic, even if it spawns off other nonsensical repercussions. However, those of us who aren't using spectacular special effects might want to give it more thought.

Cause and effect should make sense within the framework of the story. That doesn't mean it has to make sense in "this" culture or here and now or whatever, but, in the framework of the story, it must (note the example I just gave). But what repercussions fall out as a result of those causes, those plot points, have to make sense, too. Which doesn't mean events have to follow readily predictable lines or taking the "obvious" course, but, if there is an obvious alternative to your plot's path (particularly one that has notable advantages), you (the author) need to understand why you didn't take it and why you're going the way you are. The reasons don't even have to be good - just plausible. And you don't have to include them in the book, but you, the author, need to understand why you're going the way you are. Reasons that should be rethought include "I think it would be cool," "the story won't work if I don't do it this way," and "I just wanted to be different." Reasons like, "so-and-so has an aversion to flying," or "all technology on this world is biologically based," even if you just made them up, are fine as long as you follow through and are consistent with your own reasoning.

Don't make it more complicated than you can handle. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite example of a fantastic plot. Every word, every character, every event, even those that seemed minor and trivial, end up being woven into the final tapestry and pulled together in the end for a compelling denouement. How Dumas pulled that off before word processors I will never know. I know myself well enough to know I could never pull that off. I'd end up at the end with extra strands and all kinds of things I should have set up to make it work. So, I'll never write anything that complicated. If you can do it and know you can do it competently, more power to you. But if you can't, don't. Simplify. Prune. A clean flowing simple plot is much more palatable than a hopeless muddle of disjointed chains. Know your limitations, work your way up to where you want to be if you have to. But, if it's not working because it's too complicated to make sense, simplify. Remember, some of the most powerful plots are simple.

Keep the pace up. This is particularly important for us character writers. Things have to keep moving, the story advancing no matter how much you want to expose characters or indulge in entertaining dialogue or expand on descriptive periods. If you just realized you've wandered through three chapters and the story itself hasn't advanced, you need to rethink your pacing. Ideally, something is moving forward every chapter. If you find that the story really has very little advancing, very little "happening," you might want to flesh out your plot. If your story has a lot happening, but they happen with frenetic chapters of furious actions separated by chapter after chapter of exposition or amusing conversations, you might want to do some rearranging.

Eliminate dead ends, i.e. don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. (Which is not the same as not making it more complicated than you can handle). Many a time, I'm writing along and add a scene with tons of potential about a side path I can take. That I never follow through on. I love this scene. It's fun. It's entertaining. It's a visual you really love. It...blah blah blah. If this happens to you, cut it. A scene with unfulfilled potential is a broken promise and muddies up the plot. If the reader reaches the end of the book, as charmed as you were by your little extra scenes, and nothing's been done to bring those to closure, they're apt to feel disappointed.

People investing in series can get a little leeway on this, but you want as much of the story closed effectively as you can. The book should feel complete, a story that can stand on its own. Too many loose ends and it becomes a tease. As a reader, that irks me no end. Such dead ends also distract the reader from the plot you want and can even disappoint as the reader might have preferred the writer pursue that line instead of the main trunk. Note that mystery writers frequently install dead ends on purpose because it's supposed to be a maze, so take this suggestion with a grain of salt. Even so, for the rest of us, try to keep the focus on the plot points and actions that are key to the story and minimize anything that doesn't contribute.

Mix it up. Too much of anything, even stuff you like, can get old. Five chapters in a row with detailed battle action, even if action is your forte, can wear someone out. Ditto multiple heart-wrenching chapters or page after page of romantic interludes...too much of any one thing, especially in a row, can burn out a reader (and a writer). A plot like this:

Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Battle strategy and maneuvering. Vicious battle action. More strategic maneuvering. Tragic aftermath as key character is killed. Recovery and reflection.
Is going to be easier to deal with than:
Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Strategic manuevering. Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Tragic aftermath as key character was killed some chapters back. Recover and reflection, etc.
You can pile things on at the climax, but keep it moving, don't drag it on indefinitely. And mixing things up - because life rarely pauses as big events occur - is more like life and adds verisimilitude aside from also making it more palatable.

Make what happens interesting. It seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how often this doesn't happen. It's not enough for events to make sense and characters to be well-fleshed and compelling. Events need to be interesting enough to hold the readers interest. I like to think I'm an interesting person, but people would be bored to tears following me around on a regular day. If I want to be a character that excites interest, cool stuff ought to be happening to me or I need to be doing cool stuff. (Personally, I prefer characters that make their own destiny to the reactive kind but life, even in a book, is usually a combination of the two).

Truly, if you can't take your interesting characters and thought provoking setting that frames your clever premise and do something interesting with it, you're not getting the full potential from your idea.

And that, of course, was the whole idea of this series which, since I beat endings about to death, is now finished.

I hope you enjoyed it.


Wasted Potential: Talk the Talk

>> Friday, June 17, 2011

Last time I talked about relationship between characters. One has to interact with the setting and in the plot, too, but I'm a big character person so that's where I tend to focus. One thing I didn't really get into, but should have, is a big aspect of both revealing a character and developing relationships: dialog.

I love dialog. I mean I really love dialog. If there's an aspect of writing I really take pride in, it's my dialog.

Ironically, even though I love dialog, in reality I don't speak like regular people do. Rather than let that bother me, I have a tendency to use that to my advantage. Why? Because I usually include at least one character who speaks much like I do (stupidly large vocabulary, esoteric words in ordinary usage and usually complete sentences). Those characteristics in speech pattern allow the reader to automatically pick up on many aspects of my character painlessly, making revealing him or her that much easier. It also provides contrast to other characters who speak in ways more in keeping with "typical," but even that varies by age and background and social standing, etc.

What I mean is dialog is a great way to provide contrast to your characters. The great character authors I know all get this. I can go back and read pages of dialog where I could completely skip the "so and so said" bits and I'd still know who was talking because the characters have distinctive voices and styles and concerns. If you go back and read your dialog (and read it out loud because nothing highlights crappy dialog like reading it out loud) and both sides sound the same, you'd better go back and fix it unless they're identical twins that share the same brain. Which would be cool, but I digress.

By varying the way people speak, you can readily portray youth, inexperience, education, attitude, thoughtfulness, emotionality, perspective... Really, everything. It's not just the things they say, but how they say it, their phrasing, vocabulary, syntax. Even the pauses and lack of speaking can say a great deal about character. Really, I can't stress enough how important, how vital, vibrant contrasting dialog is to making your characters distinct and alive.

A note about dialect: Most advice I've read on dialects and distinctly different pronunciation has said, "don't show it." As with most rules, I'm of the opinion that you should use that rule unless your story suffers by it. Truth is, reading dialect is hard for many people and, if readers are frustrated trying to figure out what the character's supposed to sound like or what they're saying, one can make a good argument that it's counterproductive. Additionally, and I mean this most kindly, most people can't write it believably worth a damn (and don't realize that they can't). That reason alone should give anyone pause before they decide to try, because, if the stuff that's right gives a reader pause, the stuff that sucks will make the reader pull their hair. And it makes the writer look like a hack. Probably not what you're going for.

Having said all that, dialect can provide a contrast. In generally, I do not advocate writing it all out phonetically, but putting in dropped consonants ("Just sayin'.") or specific words with a distinctive sound that speak to the character ("me darlin'" vs. "my darling" or even "dahling") can go a long way to setting a character apart and giving the reader a feel for a character's voice (or even "who" they are). I also have to mention that, when someone really nails dialect, it can be fantastic, as in James Herriot's hilarious memoirs, which would not be the same without the many many different dialects he puts in.

Give the dialog voice. Dialog can not only make or break your characters and their relationships, bad dialog can really bog down a story and make it sound fake. Stiff uninteresting dialog (particularly if it's used to expose some key elements) can quickly sound stilted and contrived, clumsy and, well, boring. Dialog should not sound like narration (unless you're deeply in third person POV and the narration has similar voice). Dialog should not sound like a news report; it does not need to be objective, unemotional or polite unless your character is. It should not sound professorial unless your character is. Witty characters should be sarcastic and smart, but every statement doesn't have to be a quip (in fact it can't be without sounding stupid). Put in emotions, stuttering, shocked pauses, inflammatory language, spoken (i.e. poor) grammar in as realistic way as possible. It needs to be alive and full of color and personality or you might as well have narrated it. Let me show you an example:

"Stop it," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "I'm trying to study here."

"You're always studying. My brother says you've become positively dull. Talk to me instead."

"Cory can speak for himself. If I'm so dull, go away." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you have something better to do than bug your brother's best friend?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "No."
"Gah! You brat, get off," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "Can't you see I'm working here? Some of us have to study."

"Ha! Like you need to study. My brother says you're already setting the curve. You never even come up for air. I'm doing my civic duty by peeling you away from those books before you turn into an old man. Play with me."

"Cory's supposed to be studying, too. If he's got a complaint, he can tell me himself instead of getting his kid sister to do his dirty work. Get lost before you catch my senility." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you social butterflies always have things to do? Shopping? Group trips to the bathroom? Facebook flaming? Why don't you flutter away and leave me in peace?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "Peace? No way! That's the last thing I'm going to leave you with."
In the first one, though we're saying effectively the same thing (and everything outside the quotes is identical), there's an entirely different feel to the characters. In the first, he's studious and distracted by her presence (friend's sister) and she's trying to get his attention. However, it's not clear how he's affected, how well these two know each other, whether her rather attraction/distraction is deliberate or innocent. In the second, it's wordier, but we have a better sense of both him and her. You can get a sense of offense from being characterized as studious (and responds with an attack on her perceived frivolousness). Clearly, they know each other as more than just passing acquaintances. Just as clearly, she has some knowledge of her effect on him and is doing it deliberately.

Make it realistic but not too realistic. Real conversations between real people are, largely, dull. If you recorded your conversations with everyone you spoke to during the day, you'd be nodding off in minutes. We tend to talk inconsequential nonsense a large portion or the time. It's like certain sports - fun to play, dull as dishwater to watch. So, you need to excise those portions from real conversation that don't do anything for the story, for character development, for entertainment. You don't want movie dialog, quite, where (if written well) it's all witty and stuff. But you want a dialog that, if you heard it in a movie or a TV show, wouldn't make you want to switch channels. It's got to sound realistic (like people might actually have this conversation so not wall to wall quips and only significant statements) without sounding like a "typical" conversation with all the trivial nonsense. Again, I can't stress enough reading dialog out loud before you get happy with it. Get an audience if you can, one that will tell you the truth.

Don't say everything. People don't tell everything they're thinking, say everything that comes across their minds (except for a very very small number of irksome folks). So, if your characters explain everything, every key aspect of a situation, every nuance of their emotional state, they won't seem very realistic. People automatically edit. They keep some things secret ("You hurt my feelings by saying that.") or expect people to pick up implications ("Obviously, if someone so incompetent is getting a promotion, she's banging the boss."). If someone is telling another character about a problem, they will likely expect the other to pick up implications or deduce aspects. Expect your reader to do the same. Not too much. Being too cryptic can be frustrating as hell. But, don't fall into the TV Batman mode where you have to explain what happened, what that means and the step by step actions you're going to take to get out of the situation. Act, don't say, if you're going to act anyway.

Dialog is one place you can add "nonessential" writing. What I mean by that is not that you have pages of dialog that don't move the story forward or do anything useful. What I mean is that dialog is a good place to sneak in some humor, for example, even if it isn't essential for moving the story forward. A little lightness and humor can make a book more entertaining and is worthy even as just distraction. Similarly, a little character development or a bit of dialog that foreshadows a character aspect that explains a later action (that might otherwise be hard to comprehend) is time well spent. Your story might survive without it, but, by making it more alive, you can make it better.

Note also that people can comfortably spend time without talking. That speaks, too. Note also that conversations that provide information but don't add interest and character development might be better dealt with by saying, "Between hiccups, she gave him a disjointed account of her adventure. With comforting noises, he wiped her nose with no sign of impatience or confusion despite her digressions into incoherency." I can go through the dialog, but, if my readers already know, I'm not contributing much.

Next, plot.



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