Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Are You Really Putting That Love Scene In?

I'm doing edits on my novel, Monarch, right now, and I've been thinking a lot about things I really want out there...forever. You know? If you publish something, it's out there. It lands in people's hands, on their shelves. It will get boxed up and sent to a donation center when the person gets rid of books, or it will get boxed up and sent across the country when they move to a new house. It will be picked up by their children in later years.

It will be read. With your name attached to it.

You know, that's a scary thought to me. Of course, I already have a book out right now - Cinders. At the moment 235 people have a copy of the book. 235 people....either on their e-readers or physical copies. 140 of those are physical copies that can't just disappear into an e-reader or computer file system. At least some of those physical copies are going to be around for a long time.

This made me stop and think as I was editing Monarch. It made me wonder what I'm really putting into my work. Do I want that love scene in there? Is it necessary? Do I need all those details? Really? No. I got rid of them weeks and weeks ago when I realized this. Do I need all those swear words in there? Really? What does everything I put into my novel say about me? Should I care what people think of me later on down the road?

To an extent, yes, I think I should.

Do you?

I certainly have my own set of morals and values and sometimes my characters, although they have completely different morals and values from me, are portrayed through my lens. I'm not some objective observer just relating their story. If physical intimacy happens in my novels, that's fine, but physical intimacy is a private thing to me that I don't personally feel comfortable showing in extreme detail of the pages of my book. Some writers and readers are okay with showing lots of detail. It's different for everyone. I do show some detail to get points across and tell a story, but how we handle things says a lot about us, for good or bad, and I do think every reader will interpret those things differently. I suppose the most we can do is stay true to ourselves.

Sometimes, I'm finding out, that is easier said than done.


  1. As you know I take this very seriously. My good name is very important to me and I don't want my name attached to anything that I'll be ashamed of. It goes further than that though - I don't want my family to be attached to anything they'll be ashamed of either. I know there are authors out there who say you need to forget about what your mother will think, but I can't and even though I'm far more relaxed than she is I still have her in the back of my mind when I write something. And while I think the book I'm writing now is not a book my mom would enjoy reading - I don't think she'll be ashamed to admit I wrote it and I think she'll have no problem bragging about me to her friends when I'm done.

    I think you did a great job of giving us just enough detail without going too far when you wrote intimacy into Cinders - it's probably more than I would do, but I didn't mind it.

  2. I struggled with this very issue and chose, like you, to edit. My criteria? Do the details really add to the story? Does knowing that much about a character draw him or her out or is it just voyeuristic? I left one very short scene in, with only the most minute details, and then I tested it on my wife. She said leave it in. I did. As for swear words, I chose those carefully as well. One particularly sinister character does almost all the cursing, and it's only where it adds to the depth of his evil. And then it stops. No tossing off f-bombs for the fun of it. That would lose the shock value. So it's tamer than many books in the same genre, but I think it's better writing because of it.

  3. I originally made a commitment to have at least one love scene per book. This became more difficult to maintain as I changed how many books I wanted in the series, even when the main story arc of the series remained the same. So now I let a love scene come when it may. I have one really "hot" scene in the series, which I'm now considering toning down because I don't want it to appear out of the blue in Book Six.

  4. As you know, I've chosen to leave "those scenes" in. And yeah, they're too much for some people. My mom doesn't have/doesn't want a copy of my book due to the graphic nature, and while she'll tell people I've self-published a book, it's the act of publishing she focuses on, not the material. I had to make peace with that before I published.

    For me, leaving "those scenes" out would have been disingenuous - it's not even something I can really explain, I just feel the story, tension and emotional arc would be lacking without them. I struggled with this for a long time, my upbringing at war with my desire to have my readers share in those moments. I knew if I left them in that I'd be ensuring most of my family wouldn't read my books, but in the end I had to go with my gut. And I'm happy with the work, even though it's not for readers with "finer sensibilities".

    Swear words are extremely rare in my books simply because I don't use them myself, so they're not at the front of my vocabulary. If one of my characters uses one, you can be sure it's been very well mulled-over before it hits the page.

    You're absolutely right - everyone has to chose for themselves what they're comfortable with. We all need to be able to be proud of and "own" what we write. :-)

  5. Good golly, Michelle, there is no way on earth to describe how much I struggle with this question. And using a pen name does not make it any better, because I value the legacy and reputation of that pen name maybe even more than my own.

    Let me try to summarize my experience with this, but with a note that I face this down literally very day I write and it's probably more of a conversational topic than a comment topic.

    I myself am a pretty dull, boring guy. I'm a smart alec and that's about the extent of how I stand out in a crowd. And then I'm writing these characters who swear and drink to excess and gamble and kill people.

    On top of that, I'm I have a pretty strong set of religious beliefs. Because my stories are explorations and experiments, my characters typically have strong religious beliefs which are quite different from my own, often entirely contrary to them.

    And on top of that, because the long-term aim of my writing is to use the guise of fun reading material to trick people into thinking deeply and asking questions, the apparent moral of many of my stories is fully at odds with anything I would wish to promote.

    And yet, there it is. With my name attached it. It's my legacy. There is no part of me that is yet settled about that, except in that I remain committed to strong, rich character voices which are distinctive and authentic, and to stories which promote critical thought and a deeper understanding of the universe not promulgate my own world view, necessarily.

    I think I've said this very poorly. lol I should have stopped with, "Yeah, I struggle with this, too." hahaha

  6. I worried about the sex scene in my first novel and warned my mother about it. When she read it her response was, “I was expecting more.” She actually sounded disappointed. After I quit laughing, I decided if it passed the “Mom Test” it could stay in. I also use swear words if they go with the character and the event.

  7. As for cursing, I don't have that in my present book, but I would include it if it fit the characters. Although I do use my own personal experiences as a leaping off point for a lot of stories, I don't write characters to be my sockpuppets. They don't have to talk or think or conduct their personal lives like I do. (They would be pretty dull characters if they did). So if it's right for them to curse they will. But I also consider the "tone" I want for the book and the series. I do have one vampire story (I know, I know) they would swear. But in my Dindi series the cursing is more for fun. "Muck!" and "Fa!"

  8. In my second book, a military thriller, I did put in a love scene, but boy did I have to work hard at it. It was the hardest scene to write that I have ever done.

    I have no idea whether it works or not, but I sure set it up so that there would be no doubt that the characters could get together.

    My books have some swear words in them, but I also try not to put in too many. As David already said, it limits the shock value, and I need them to amp up the tension or feeling in a scene sometimes. It you overuse them, you lose that capability.

    I have written posts about this before, http://adventures-in-creative-writing.blogspot.com/2009/06/someone-to-watch-over-me.html but I try not to worry about my mother reading my books, but it's there in the back of my mind, I know it is.

    So far I haven't really thought that much about leaving a legacy. Maybe I should. My son doesn't read my stuff, but I think he would be cool about it anyway. When I have grandkids, hmmm, that might be different.

    Overall though, I try to write the best story I can, no matter how other people will look upon me when they read it.

  9. I consider this very strongly with every word I put down. I believe we've had this discussion before.

  10. I propose an alternate way to look at the love scene. The voice of the book dictates what type of love scene the writer shares with her readers. When the author follows this, the writing works. When it is not, the writing is poor writing and fails.

    When reading a book, often readers come across a tender moment in the story and think the author’s blown it. The reason is usually stilted writing, and the stilted writing is caused by tell, not show. The explicitness (or not) of a love scene must follow the voice of the book or the author has indeed, blown it.

    A classic example is a visceral, intensely personal descriptive book that closes the door on the reader just when the lovers-to-be share a kiss. Here, the reader, having gotten into the minds and hearts of the two people presented, is suddenly thrust (ha ha, get it, thrust…never mind) out of the story.

    Since Michelle mentioned Cinders, Let’s use that as an example. Cinders is a very sensual book, but if the sexuality presented within was itself not sensual, the love scenes (or lack thereof) would have not worked. However, the love scenes in Cinders follow the prose of the novel. They were very personal, and it didn’t have anything to do with explicitness.

    It all comes down to this: show me. Don’t tell me. You cannot show me romance as an author, and then tell me about love, even the physical aspects of it. It doesn’t work, and readers don’t care about sensibilities, upbringing or level of embarrassment. The level of explicitness must follow the pattern of the book. Too much, or too little descriptive quality and the voice of the story has changed.

    For an entire week of talking about love scenes, you can go to the series on my blog. But if you want to know how not to write a love scene, simply go here.

  11. Mary: Yes, I know you take this seriously. I do, too, and even though I’d like to admit that I don’t care what others think, I really do. It matters to me what I leave behind, especially to my family.

    David: I think it really came down to asking why I put something in. Sometimes I just like to rebel and put something in because I can, not because I should or because the story really needs it. I’m happy you found that medium for yourself. It’s an important step to reach!

    Tara: That’s really interesting! Is there a specific reason why you wanted one per book? To please readers?

    Jamie: I hesitated writing this post because I didn’t want anyone to think I was against romance or putting love scenes in all together. It’s a very personal decision and nobody should make it but the writer.

    Nevets: Haha, I like it when you explain a lot. Your comment is really helpful to me because I see that I’m not the only one struggling because of my religious beliefs and values. I think religious writers who don’t write religion feel doubly judged if their work is read by others in their religion and there are things in the writing that another person in that religion isn’t comfortable with.

    Jane: That’s funny about your mom! I bite my nails all the time about anything intimate in my stories, but I can’t just write stories where nobody loves each other or displays affection, and one thing I really want to do is show consequences for making mistakes.

    Tara: Hah! Well, cursing in any language is cursing, but I do think it goes over more smoothly if they aren’t recognizable by the reader, maybe? I don’t know. You have a vampire story???

    Douglas: I’ve written a love scene although it will never be published anywhere, ever, because it was awful and awkward and I’m sad even some people have read it, hah. It’s difficult to write it well without it getting clichéd and terrible. Definitely an art, I suppose.

    Lois: Yes, we’ve talked about this before. :)

    Anthony: I love your comment, thank you! I think it’s really important that you brought this up because it’s a great point to make that the book needs to work as a whole. Putting an erotic love scene into a novel where it simply doesn’t fit is just not a smart idea at all, even if that scene is well-written and helps the plot. If it doesn’t follow the voice of the book, it will be terrible. I think I’ve read your posts on the love scenes. You handled them really well!

  12. You know how genre hacks are always accused of writing to a formula. Well, in my case, I confess: I have a formula. Sadly, it seems to be a formula recognized by no one but me, but there you go. :)

    Anyway, series starts fairly light and gets darker as it goes on, but I wanted there to be consistency across the books. So I made a rule for myself that there would be (at least) one love scene, one torture scene and one battle scene in every book. It does look rather tacky when I put baldly like that. But it's helpful with plotting. If I get stuck with the characters sitting around doing nothing, I just ask myself, "Who can get naked, get tortured or get killed?"

    Deep. I know.

  13. I should admit, though, that my love scenes have been known to make people laugh.

  14. Tara: All of my books are written by some formula or another. I can't seem to write any other way. I need maps and charts and proven methods or I kind of fall apart. The key is to write such a good story that a formula is not even visible. I'll let you know if I laugh at any of your love scenes. I just put Dindi on my Kindle. :)

  15. Michelle: I feel that most authors get the point that you brought up in response to my comment.

    I believe, though, the inverse is actually more true. Authors, the published and the unpublished, boof (and boof is a technical term) the love scene because of stilted writing because they decided to play modest when the voice of the book called for honesty.

    In other words, the author can't tell me as a reader that sex didn't matter to the story when it was so obvious it did. I have read books where two sensual people turned into literary sexless wonders, thereby removing most of the emotional impact they were creating.

    I hope that makes sense.

  16. @Michelle - I was the edgy bad boy among a lot of my college writing friends because my characters smoked a lot and were hopeless in their despair. I can't imagine what those guys will think when they read my current stuff.

    Which is partly why I use the pseudonym. Not to hide from them, per se, to avoid rubbing what I do in their faces. I'm not ashamed of what I write. I don't think it incompatible with my religious beliefs. But I know many of my friends, family, and people in our religious circles would be shocked and confused. When it happens, that's fine. But I don't want to do it to deliberately shock them. So I use the pseudonym as a bit of a filter. A threshold that gives me the chance to say, "Yes, I am published, but I'd like you understand that..."

    As long as I'm running at the mouth, as it were, I'll add that it's taken me a long time to get to where I am. You read my contest entry piece for Notes from Underground, Michelle. I anguished over that more than most people will be able to appreciate it. It took a lot of strength of will to see that voice through and commit to the character like I did.

  17. Anthony: Yes, it just so happens that when I sat down to write Cinders I realized, hmmm, there's going to be intimacy in this book. She just got married. She's young. She's supposedly in love. I couldn't avoid it and if I had tried it wouldn't have worked, if you ask me. I think I handled it well by keeping it modest enough. Some people said they were bothered by it, but that's also a very personal thing.

    Nevets: I think the one thing I liked most about your piece was that it felt confident. THAT is something I pick up a lot on when I'm judging contests. It's not even something I can really explain. It has nothing to do with subject matter, even. If the voice is confident everything else either slides into place or is able to slide into place with a little bit of work.

  18. @Michelle - And I had to be confident to do it, but it took Domey's voice in my ear and a lot of authorial muscle to kept myself to do it. Writing and submitting that piece was pretty huge for me. I'll always be grateful for the opportunity to force myself to do that.

  19. Nice discussion going on here. I think a lot of times what goes into a book is driven by what you suggest--whether it really adds value to the work. It's not always dependent on the writer's personal value system. I have known writers who are the gentlest of human beings, yet have had to use expletives in their novels because that's actually the way some of their characters would speak in real life.

  20. @Bhaswati ji - As a writer who prizes voice and characterization over just about everything else in what I right, I think you're right on.

    The one thing that I would like to add to the general conversation, that your comment inspired, is that the author is still in control. It's up to me to decide what my character can and can't, will or won't do. I'm not at the mercy of my character. I'm creating them and writing them. So there are still some lines I just don't cross and will probably never cross because for me, they go further than I want to be attached to, regardless of how authentic they might be to the character.

  21. Nevets: Domey is good at that. Isn't he great!?

    Bhaswati: I had an interesting conversation with my friend tonight about how the intimate sections in my book really make people's mouths drop open NOT because they are explicit or detailed (because they are actually very brief and not detailed in a physical sense), but because they are extremely sensual in explaining what the intimacy is like instead of what's actually happening. If that makes any sense at all.

    It is sometimes just how we tell things instead of what we're actually telling that makes the most difference.

  22. @Michelle - Domey is the best Jiminy Cricket a writer could ever have.

    I know I could google how to spell Jiminy. I'm not going to.


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