Mallory Wilkins, Tess Gerritsen, Denise Dietz, Caro Soles at Bloody Words 2011

What Do We Write About When We Write About Sex?

by Sharleen Jonsson on February 14, 2014

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s one of my most popular posts. Enjoy:

Your characters want to have sex and you’re quaking at the thought. But fear not: At a recent writers conference, I sat in on a panel discussing the scenes that can give anyone severe writers block, and I took notes for you. Bloody Words panelists Mallory Wilkins, Tess Gerritsen, Denise Dietz and Caro Soles came up with several tips, and here are some of them, rephrased as questions you might ask yourself:

  • Why are your characters having sex? Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen, who’s written romances as well as thrillers, points out that a sex scene can be an opportunity to show a character in a new way, revealing things that would be difficult to see in any other kind of scene; for example, in the case of a male character, how he treats a woman in bed can convey a lot.
  • What leads to sex? It’s not all about the act itself. What precedes the scene? How does the sexual tension build? If characters aren’t having sex for the first time, there may not be a lot of tension but you can show what they do to get in the mood. Do they feed each other raw oysters? Do they like Michael Buble crooning in the background? Do they make out to Fox News?
  • What happens after sex? A sex scene is a good way to introduce complications. When two characters who should not be having sex go ahead and do it anyway, it can create big problems for them and other characters. It can also have an impact on the main goal of the novel; if two characters are on opposing sides (for example, a cop and a criminal), sex between them will muddle things wonderfully.
  • When should two characters succumb to their attractions? The answer can depend on the genre. In general, sexual tension fades when characters have sex; this means that in a romance, you don’t want these two falling into each other’s arms too soon—in fact, maybe not until the final pages. If the novel is a thriller or mystery, the main tension in the book will not be sexual, so you can “spend” a little tension earlier on.


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Books To Make You Happy, Happy, Happy! Or Not.

by Sharleen Jonsson on August 1, 2013

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about optimism. Not because I’m seeking a recipe for happiness. I have some reservations about the whole goal-focused, quasi-evangelical positivity movement, so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading books by authors who take their optimism with a twist of lemon. Looking for a refreshing take on positivity? Consider the books that have graced my reading table over the past few months:

  • Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. I once went to an aerobics class where the instructor told us to pause and turn to the person next to us and “share something positive that happened to you today.” If you wish you could find a class like this, Bright-sided is not for you. If you are, like me, a person who finally, grudgingly comes up with, “Well, I found a parking spot”— and then jogs quickly back to said parking spot — then you, too, will enjoy this cutting audit of the happiness industry. Delightfully negative!
  • The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman isn’t as pissed off about positivity as Ehrenreich is. His book presents a more thoughtful examination of what it means to be happy in this optimism-obsessed age, and a willingness to “try anything” in the pursuit of an answer. There were times when he lost me, when I flipped through the pages trying to escape a downward spiral of cloudy ideas (the chapter on Eckhart Tolle comes to mind), but still this book was definitely not a waste of my time. I recommend the chapter on Goals – yes, Goals with a capital G. Read this and you’ll think twice before you dedicate your life to that goalpost at the end of the rainbow.
  • Spontaneous Happiness, by Andrew Weil. I like Andrew Weil. I’ve never met him but I just know I would like him if he invited me to his house for dissection of Life, hopefully over an organic, herbal beverage. His prescription for happiness is plain-spoken, folksy, and completely lacking in “This-book-will-change-your-life!” hype. His advice is sometimes obvious, yet – in my case, at least – worth being reminded of. Avoid the 24-hour bad news cycle, listen to sounds you enjoy, surround yourself with things you find beautiful and don’t forget to breathe.
  • Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert cracks me up. Maybe I’m especially impressed with him because I spent four years as an undergrad majoring in Psychology and admire anyone who can make decades of social science fascinating, but I don’t think you need to have a psych background to enjoy his examination of the science behind so-called happiness. This is not a self-help book but then, you don’t want that, anyway, do you? You want to know what the hell smart people actually know about what it means to be happy, and Gilbert will tell you everything we have so far. Highly recommended.




Good House is Good Recovery Fiction

May 23, 2013

And speaking of drunkenness (see my last post, Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?), I just finished , by Ann Leary. Protagonist Hildy Good lives on prime property just outside a coastal town north of Boston. She is the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first women hanged for witchcraft in nearby Salem. Hildy […]

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Looking for Some Great Recovery Lit?

April 1, 2013
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Thirty pages into a memoir of recovery from alcoholism, I suddenly stopped and flipped the book over to study the photo of the author: Had I read this book before? Then I realized that no, it just seemed that way because I’ve read several such memoirs and they all have the same basic structure. Chapter […]

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Great Story Twirls Rather Than Spins

January 29, 2013
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 had me at the end of the opening chapter. There I was in New York City, on August 7, 1974, watching Philippe Petit dance along a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers. I was craning my neck, squinting against the bright sky, holding my breath even though I knew – thanks to history – that […]

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Words to Ban in 2013

December 29, 2012
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Over this holiday season, my reading tastes changed—even my minimal shopping and baking left me wanting nothing more taxing than magazines with glossy photos and short articles. Women’s magazines are not noted for in-depth reporting or thoughtful, serious writing on any topic, and that’s okay; there’s a time and place for tips on how we […]

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I.O.U. a Great Nonfiction Story

October 19, 2012
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Good nonfiction can make a complicated, difficult topic comprehensible. One of the most confounding matters of modern times is how the global financial system went off the rails in 2008. How is one to understand Too Big To Fail banks gambling with other people’s money and then getting taxpayer-funded bailouts? I watched several documentaries and […]

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Peyton Place: Author’s Story Better Than the Book?

July 23, 2012
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After running across a reference to , I picked  this novel up out of curiosity, my commitment lukewarm. I ended up reading the entire book. Yes, some of the prose is purple and the sex that made it a “dirty book” in 1956 seems tame (not to mention sexist) today. But if you’re a writer […]

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The Power of Story

June 14, 2012
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It’s obvious the ability to tell a great story will get you far in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. But literary devices—the use of scenes, specific detail and suspense and more—can turn informational nonfiction into a riveting read, too. By “informational,” I mean the sort of book you read mainly to find out about a […]

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How Stories of Working Mothers Work

May 11, 2012
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My bedside reading this week included a memoir of a wife and mother who had a successful career as an advertising executive in the 1960s — a tell-all book by a real-life version of Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson. When I craved a chickflick, I watched Sarah Jessica Parker pretend to be a successful career woman/frazzled […]

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