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.
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.