Literary Pet Peeves #3: The Constant Fashion Show

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Let’s get the important caveat out of the way: how much description of clothing (or anything) is present in a story should be a balance between genre expectations, necessity, and authorial preference. How readers respond to what level of description they’re given is also a matter of personal preference. I say this because the first review I got of Fifty-Five Days had good things to say about the story, but dinged me on not describing stuff enough aside from one particular chapter where I was introducing an entirely new setting in detail for story purposes. The reviewer would have preferred more of that throughout the novel, and you know what? Totally fair. I accept that I could have done better on that.

But in recent months, as a reader I’ve been subjected to a few books that I found heavy-handed when it came to including clothing description–I even called one book “a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.”

Knowing what characters are wearing is important, certainly. It says a lot about someone if they show up on a first date wearing a tuxedo versus jeans and a flannel–either could easily be the wrong thing to wear, for different reasons, and that will tell you something about the character. But do I need to know the color, cut, and detailing of every piece of clothing a character is wearing in every scene? Absolutely not.

So how does this happen? I’ve discerned a few possible reasons, based on where I’ve encountered these literary fashion shows.

Teenage characters/YA fiction: I often see an emphasis on clothing in contemporary American high school settings, where the author uses the dress style to establish what kind of character they are in shorthand. Quirky character? Mismatched or atypical clothes. Nerd? Glasses, sweaters, etc. Geek? Superhero t-shirts. Jock? Letter jackets. And to some degree, that’s all fine. But as with anything, it can be overdone; I don’t need to get an update on every outfit a character wear with every scene change, just give me an idea of their style and let my imagination take care of the rest, unless the new outfit is important to the story somehow (like formal wear for a dance, or a costume, or anything else out of the ordinary.) Most recently seen in: Labyrinth Lost.

A focus on clothing for fantasy world-building: Attire is a key aspect of any culture, and going on at length about food and customs and whatever else about a created fantasy culture without ever mentioning their clothing would be odd. But if it’s the most important thing, or even the only thing that’s focused on, then you get the fashion show taking over the story, when it’s more important that I know the villain is now wearing her purple robes instead of her green ones, when I’d rather get more insights into her motivations. Most recently seen in: The Bone Witch. Also I seem to remember this being constant in Sarah J. Maas’ work, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of them.

Clothing as routine mundanity: Yes, I still need to know what characters wear even if it’s not special and they’re living normal, boring lives, but don’t harp on it to make a point about how dreary their existence is, and don’t focus repeatedly on any unusual details to try to make one character stand out. Yes, The Bridges of Madison County, I’m calling you out, you and your freaking suspenders. But other “literary” works I’ve read over the years are just as guilty.

Undoubtedly there are more I haven’t thought of, that may become clear to me in time as I read other books that stop every few pages to tell me all about what a character is wearing. Rant over, for the time being, while I bundle my complaints internally into a lesson on how I do not want to write about clothing.

“Headlight” Outlining: What It Is and Why It Might Work for You

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It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

E.L. Doctorow

“Headlight” outlining was something I knew about prior to NaNoWriMo 2020, but I’d never tried it. Then, because I decided to participate relatively late, with little time to prep, I only had a rough scene outline for the first five chapters when November 1st came.

When I reached the end of those five chapters, I took my writing notebook to work with me, and during downtime, I thought, “okay, so what happens next?” and wrote down everything I could think of. Before my next writing session, I turned those notes into a few more chapters of outline, and then turned that outline into a few more chunks of story.

When I got to the end of that, I got out the notebook and did it again. I had no intention of reinventing the wheel, but because of my situation, I did “discover” the headlight novel-writing method for myself.

I’m not done with that novel–I got through roughly 2/3 of it that way before the event was over, and my usual diligence in keeping “NaNo” going until I had a finished draft fell by the wayside in favor of working on the Fifty-Five Days publishing process, because I didn’t have the energy to do both. I’ll go back to it as soon as possible, but I did enough that I feel comfortable talking about (and possibly recommending) the process to others.

Pros:

  • It’s plan-as-you-go, which alleviates the mental burden some writers feel when trying to follow outlining advice that suggests everything about your story needs to be worked out ahead of time. For many, that’s their preferred method, but for others, that’s simply too big a task to undertake.
  • It breaks a long project into smaller pieces by alternating the type of work done. Write what you have at the beginning until you run out of steam, stop for a bit to brainstorm more. Do it again, and again, until you get to the end of your story.
  • It allows you to get started when you have a beginning and an ending, but not necessarily a middle (which is a common thing for me, since I write romance, and happy endings are the norm to shoot for.) The middle will mostly take care of itself once you get the story underway.
  • Because not everything is set in stone at the beginning, this method can allow for more freedom to explore new ideas that come up during the writing process. Don’t like where that brainstorming session took you? Go back to the last chapter you like for sure and take a new path to your destination. (The road trip metaphor really shines here.)

Cons:

  • For writers used to strict planning, this might feel too loose and wishy-washy. No one method is right for everyone, all the time, so if you’re happy with your stricter system, whatever it is, run with it.
  • It does rely heavily on linear chronology within the story to make the method work. If you already know your story isn’t going to fit within those bounds, the natural “if this happens now, then that happens next” logic that the method uses isn’t going to help you plan much. It’s possible, of course, to write the first draft chronologically and rearrange it later in revision, but depending on your process, that might just be creating more (unnecessary) work for yourself.
  • For anyone who struggles with finishing a first draft, those “stop to brainstorm” points might turn into “but I’m out of ideas so I’m giving up” points. I’m a little worried for myself, despite my early success with this method, because I’m taking a break to work on something else–I know I might have trouble getting started again. (Though for me, obviously it’s too late to get off this train, because I can’t go back in time and have it all planned out retroactively.)

With each book I’ve written (or attempted to write) my process for the first draft has looked a little different, depending on what ideas I started with, what I didn’t find working from my last project, and what advice I’d absorbed in the meantime. My first two books were written non-chronologically, both starting in the middle where I had the best scene idea, and working outwards to some extent from there. (Also, I wrote the last five chapters of What We Need to Decide in one go, very early on in the drafting process, then had my action meet up with it later. I changed the middle of that story three times before I made it work.) What did I learn from that? Well, everything I’ve written since has been largely chronological, because it makes less work for me in revision, though if I have strong feelings about the ending ahead of time I will write a sort of zero-draft set of notes on it to aim for, even if I no longer commit to writing the actual chapters.

One novel I wrote (and may never go back to) I wrote chronologically, but with absolutely no planning at all, relying on daily prompts for the inspiration for the first half, and my own “well this is how it started so this is how I’ll finish it” inspiration during NaNo for the second half. What did I learn from that? Prompts are fun and I enjoyed the process, but I didn’t get a very solid story out of it in the end, and even after substantial rewrites I left a lot of plot holes and unanswered questions. Conclusion: complete lack of planning is murder on consistent worldbuilding, not well suited to a fantasy setting.

So what have I learned from this newest almost-novel? Headlight outlining seems to be a good fit for me, though next time I try it I should probably plan my time better so that I don’t have to take a break during the drafting process to work on something else, because I feel myself losing momentum and enthusiasm for the project. (I can also blame the pandemic-altered holiday stress, too, writing never exists in a vacuum.)

While I know about myself at this point that I’ll never be a total plan-ahead type–the Snowflake Method, which I tried for an abandoned idea back in 2015, basically reduced me to tears within two hours–I’m open to changing my process from project to project in order to find something that suits me better than however I did it before, and this time, I might have struck gold. It’s not going to be right for everyone–again, no one method is–but as I had such a positive experience with it, I wanted to talk about why and inspire others to try it, or at least consider it.

Writing Homework #23: Book Titles

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Earlier this month, I wrote about how I feel when a book title misleads me by including the name of a character I didn’t ultimately think deserved in-title status.

Though annoyance isn’t something I seek out when I’m reading, there’s no reason not to turn those negative feelings into something useful, because writing that post gave me an idea.

Book title practice.

I’ve usually struggled with titling my books, even my works in progress. I often come up with the title late in the process, and usually not on the first try.

So what if I took one or more of the books I felt were improperly titled and applied various advice on how to come up with titles to their stories?

Today I’ll play around with The Hangman’s Daughter, because it’s the fiction book I mentioned that I read most recently, so the story is freshest in my mind.

Hold on while I turn to the Internet for advice on book titles… I’ll reference this article simply because it was the first to turn up in a search and it’s reasonably comprehensive. (Though I’ve found several typos just skimming it…)

A. Use Common Phrases: how would this apply to The Hangman’s Daughter? I could try to come up with a different “common phrase” that would reference the plot, but “X’s Daughter” already is a common phrase, especially in media titles. This advice won’t help in this case unless I had a light-bulb moment hearing a phrase I thought applied.

B. One Word Titles: Hmm. What was the book about? Torture. Witches. Alchemy but not really? Collective hysteria. Assigning blame. Nothing I can boil down to a single word easily. Often these titles are what the book is about thematically, and honestly, I’m not even sure what the thematic arc of The Hangman’s Daughter was.

C. Use Parts of Your Story: Including characters, settings, main events, the season, etc. This already applies–the title is a character–but could we improve on that? Would it be more interesting to name the book for a different character–“The Man with the Skeleton Hand.” Upside, he’s a bigger part of the story, downside, now it sounds like an old-timey serial rather than a work of historical fiction. Could we name it for one of the major story elements? Most of the book is about the mystery of the dead and missing children, so “The Stolen Children” has potential–it’s properly grim to match the tone of the work, and it accurately describes the heart of the main conflict. It’s not flashy, but it’s solid. Maybe not as intriguing in a “huh what does that mean” way, but certainly with a certain air of mystery–what’s happening to these kids?

D. Set Word Phrases & Formatted Templates: This advice is basically saying “use words and phrases from your previous attempts, plug them into the blank spaces in these titles, see what comes out.” I’m skeptical of the usefulness for book titles rather than the attention-grabbing clickbait it’s modeled on, but tools are tools, so let’s give it a try. “The Secret to Torture.” “What Everybody Ought to Know about Witches.” “Who Else Wants Hysteria?” These are just giving me joke titles that don’t match the tone I’m aiming for.

E. Look at Your Genre: ie, don’t stray too far from established styles of titles among your peers. This section of advice gives a link to several title generators based on genre. There is no list for historical fiction, but there is one for crime/thriller, so I checked all of those out. Only one was a true working “generator” that would create titles when I hit a button. (One didn’t work in my browser, one was just a long list of titles somebody else made up, and one was a predetermined list of components, ie, if your first name starts with A, B, C, etc.)

The working generator mostly gave me titles with the general pattern “[noun] of the [adjective] [noun]” and “[past tense verb] for [noun.]” I used to love Mad Libs! So, many of the townspeople believed the conflict was caused by the witch’s curse, which would make that first title something like “Curse of the Angry Witch,” though there are a lot of different adjectives I could try in that spot. Because the dead children all share a mysterious mark on their body when they’re found, the second title could be the oh-so-generic “Marked for Death” or possibly “Marked for Murder.”

Are they more descriptive and accurate? Sure are. But are these better? Because of their incredibly generic nature, I’m going to say no. But this approach certainly has potential, even if I had to do most of the work myself analyzing the patterns the generator gave me rather than it spitting out useful titles unprompted.

F. Hooks in the Title: This concept is fantastic, but it relies on wordplay or another form of cleverness to somehow catch a potential reader’s attention while still being relevant to the book. One example given is basically a spoiler: “John Dies at the End.” (I’ve also read They Both Die at the End, and credit where credit is due, I was intrigued by that title.) Spoilers, I can do. How about “The Witch is Innocent,” no, too obvious. “There Was Never a Curse.” “Those Meddling Kids”–no, wait, that’s a different book. “It’s Actually About Greed,” because of course it is. I’m calling this attempt a failure, though I still like what the advice is trying to do.

As for the rest of the article…well, there’s a few more concrete instructions, but one is aimed specifically at non-fiction, and the rest don’t seem particularly relevant in this exercise, so let’s call it here–I still tried six approaches!

Did I successfully re-title The Hangman’s Daughter? No. Did I really expect that I would? Also no, though it would have been cool if I had to my own satisfaction.

Was that really the end goal of this exercise? Of course not! It was to get me (and hopefully, you) thinking about title creation and how different approaches might apply!

Further thoughts based on my own work: What We Need to Survive got its title during the final drafting phase, and also got its chapter titles that way; each chapter is named for an important physical object in that scene, and collectively, they are the title. (But also not, because the title is also referring to intangible concepts like love, resourcefulness, and hope.) What We Need to Decide and What We Need to Rebuild follow similar patterns, but focusing on other aspects of the journey. My upcoming release, Fifty-Five Days, spent over three years being called #rockstarnovel, until a few months ago when I sat down to rewrite, hammered out an actual tour schedule to work as a structure to hang my timeline on, and then realized the tour length was symbolic of both the difficulty of the situation for the main characters, and how long (or quickly, depending on your outlook on romance) they had to fall in love and decide to make major changes in their lives. The trilogy titles are hooks; 55D is based on setting. And if/when I release future installments in the rock-star series (I am attempting one now) I’ll be locked in to the “[Number] [Noun]” format for my titles, though I don’t know yet if they’ll all be related to time or not. I don’t have a proper title for the NaNo20 novel yet, which is a sequel to 55D–I never worry about titles before the end of the first draft. I’ve got months/years left with this story, that I started less than a month ago. No rush to name it yet.



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Literary Pet Peeves #2: Misleading Titular Characters

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Alternately, the post title could have been “Why Did the Title Make Me Think This Book was About This Character When They’re Irrelevant, or They Don’t Show Up For Half the Book.” But that was too long.

It doesn’t happen often: I think the first time I formally complained about this in a book review was after reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender back in 2016, but it’s come up again a lot this year: The Miniaturist was, at best, a randomly mysterious but ultimately unnecessary minor character in her own novel; The Necromancer wasn’t primarily about Johannes Cabal; The Hangman’s Daughter was barely present in the book named for her and was usually a plot object rather than an actual character when she was present; and perhaps mostly surprisingly, I got hit one more time with a nonfiction book, An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, where Ms. Tew was little more than a narrative thread barely holding together a succession of historical vignettes about the men in her life.

I’m peeved every time. I get that titling books can be difficult, believe me, I do. But if an author puts a character in the title–the most visible, prominent thing about a book, the very identification that differentiates it from other books–isn’t it reasonable for me, a reader, to expect that the book is about that character?

Am I wrong in my disappointment? Should I stop expecting a titular character to be a protagonist, or at least a villain if that’s applicable? Should I stop squandering my expectations?

Of course, it’s not universal. I’m so irritated by it because it keeps happening, but it’s far from every book. Coraline was clearly about Coraline. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a wholly accurate title for its contents. Even if I didn’t end up enjoying the book, The Bone Witch was about a bone witch. I could go on, but I’m not actually interested in titles that get it right. I’m questioning why it seems so many titles get it wrong.

(It would be a fun exercise to look up general title-writing advice and try to re-title the books that have irked me in the past according to that advice. I think I just created a new Writing Homework post for later this month!)

I’m hesitant to ascribe a single, reductive motive to all these poor titling choices; it would be easy, but useless, to simply say “these authors were lazy.” In some cases, it might be publisher pressure–character titles are memorable, and titles are one of the things that can get changed in the publishing process (though I have no hard information on how often that happens, obviously. You just hear things.) In others, the author might truly think they gave their work an appropriate title, and I happen to disagree. In yet others, I’m sure there are reasons I haven’t considered for why the title is what it is, and I’ll have to accept that those titles set me up for disappointment.

But it has become a literary pet peeve of mine, and the point of this post is to whine about it, not fix it. I can’t fix it. I can only hope that writers reading it will take my whining into account when they someday publish their books that I might someday read, so that I (and other readers) won’t be disappointed next time I pick up A Book Clearly Named for One of its Characters.

Literary Pet Peeves: Describing People with Food

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[This may or may not be successful post series, but I had an idea, let’s give this a try.]

In researching how to respectfully describe characters of color, I’ve encountered many voices saying “Don’t use food-related words for anything about them, especially hair, skin, or eye color.” (I’m paraphrasing from several sources, but as this concept is not at all my idea, here are a few to check out.)

That got me thinking about how common food is as a descriptor for people in general, and in more ways that the color of any given body part. Heck, I grew up with the term “pear-shaped” as an acceptable way to denote my body type, and the older I get and the more I read, the more irritated I am at the constant likening of people to food, even outside of racist connotations.

I don’t want to be “pear-shaped” anymore, not in reality, but in the way another writer might describe me or a character resembling me.

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen is the old, tired “her breasts were like apples.” I’ve seen it in older fiction, I’ve seen it in modern romance novels; I’ve seen it from male and female authors alike. This one in particular irritates me to no end because I’m immediately pulled out of the story every time I encounter it, by the image of an otherwise flat-chested woman with two red apples stuck to the front of her. I’ve never seen a breast that looks even remotely like an apple.

This vague idea I had for writing a “no food words” post was sharpened by a recent Tumblr thread about the “just-pressed olive oil” description of a character in Song of Achilles, which I have not read. The author mounts a compelling defense of her intentions in using it, and how it relates to ancient perception of color: totally worth the read. But I can’t help but think, much like apple boobies, that it’s such a jarring image that it’s not helpful in the story and doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. (Its “silliness” is a complaint I found in several reviews of the book that turned up when I was trying to find the post I remembered seeing and hadn’t saved.)

Where am I going with this? Well, mostly spouting off about how I’ve grown to think that nobody should be described with food terminology. What food color would my own skin be, anyway? Under-done bread? The lightest part of a tortilla? Nah, neither of those are pink enough–I’m really pale, which means I generally look pink or even red, thanks, sunburn/rosacea. I can’t think of a single flattering way to liken my skin to food, though I’m less insulted by “wheat-colored” hair for my blonde-ness.

You don’t have to take my advice to heart, of course. (I do suggest you listen to the people of color telling you not to compare them to food, still.) But the other aspect of this is that it’s so common, and it’s so easy, that even when it’s not done in a racist way, it’s still lazy! Why describe your characters the same way everyone else does? Why not stretch yourself to do something different by not relying on simple food comparisons?

Rant over, at least until next time I have a new literary pet peeve, with sources, to gripe about.

Writing Homework #21: Improve Your Character Description

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There’s a standard set of traits many writers will default to when introducing or describing a character: height, eye color, hair color, skin tone, sometimes weight. I include myself in this group–I made a big deal in the What We Need series that Paul was tall and blond and Nina was short and dark-haired. I tried not to refer to those traits too often, and I know plenty of other description happened too. But if someone who read my books once was asked to describe them years later, I’m sure they’d give an answer similar to what I just said.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful to mention–the reason they’re so common is that they’re generally obvious, the sort of traits you’d notice right away when meeting someone. (Eye color maybe not so much; I’ve seen a strong pushback in various writing circles against making it a key feature, because eyes are small and hard to see clearly without being quite close to someone. In a long-distance relationship I had in my younger days, I misremembered my boyfriend’s eyes as brown after we met, and when I saw him again they were actually hazel with lots of green!)

The problem comes when a) that’s all you get for a character, height, hair color, general body shape if you’re lucky; or b) when it’s treated like a checklist, and the story breaks for a full paragraph including all of the traits the author has decided are important, for every single character. (No, no, I haven’t forgotten that torture, Dreams Underfoot.)

I want to make it clear, I’m not advising anyone to never use these traits. I want to examine what can be done when you’re not limited by them.

What else do people want to see in your characters?

  • Imperfections. A skin tag on the side of their neck. Acne, chicken pox scars, stretch marks–they’re not just from pregnancy, or limited to women. A spot on their jaw where they missed using foundation. Makeup not hiding their freckles even though they tried. Even beautiful people aren’t perfect, so show us that.
  • Details that tell us about more than their appearance. A wrinkled shirt might be a sign they don’t care for their belongings, or that they had to wear it overnight for some reason. Rounded shoulders and sagging posture could mean they’re simply tired, but also might indicate they hunch habitually, to seem shorter or less threatening, or because of a sedentary job. Jeans torn out at the knees might be a fashion statement, or they might belong to a hobbyist skateboarder who bails a lot.
  • Go beyond the visual. We notice how people look when we meet them, but also how they sound. What’s their voice like? Their laugh? And what about how they smell? It won’t always be obvious, but any scent strong enough to notice would convey information. Perfume or cologne implies a certain care for how they present themselves, even if the scent itself isn’t great to other people. If someone smells like cut grass, they might be a landscaper. Shampoo or lotion can smell like just about anything, and choosing a scent says something about what they find pleasant.
  • Body language. How much personal space do they keep around them? Are they a hugger? How do they stand or sit? What are they doing with their hands while they talk?

Compare:

Ryan was tall and raven-haired. His blue eyes stared at me from across the bar, and I shivered under the intensity of his gaze. [yes, I went full-on bad-romance description, thank you for noticing]

Even after Ryan sat down and ordered his drink, his head was level with mine. The bar lights added gleaming bits of pink and blue to his dark hair. His pale eyes tracked my movements as I mixed his cocktail, but I wasn’t sure I liked the attention.

The first description is serviceable, sure. We might be able to pick Ryan out of a random lineup with that information. But what do we learn from the second description that we don’t get in the first?

  1. The narrator-bartender is probably fairly short, if a tall man sitting down is still on an even eye-level with her.
  2. The bar is lit with pink and blue, though it’s not clear what kind of lighting: neon, strings of Christmas-style lights, or something else.
  3. We don’t know his precise eye color, but given the established setting, it’s more reasonable to notice his eyes are light instead of dark. Would naming an exact color even be accurate with the colored lighting already mentioned? Probably not.

And I didn’t even get to things like his scent (probably not applicable in a bar setting) or his body language or his imperfections. Body language cues would be a natural next thing to include as he took his drink; imperfections would only come up if the bartender sticks around long enough to notice.

As usual, I’m only scratching the surface. Character description is a deep topic, and though I’ve given general advice to shore up common weaknesses, you could go a lot further, and what traits to include will also depend on your personal style and the needs of the story.

On to the actual homework: If you have a WIP currently, revisit your primary/initial description for each major character. Note your tendencies on what’s included and what you consistently ignore. Rewrite each description in a separate file (I’m not ordering you to change your actual project for my homework assignment!) but hang on to it if you found the exercise helpful.

If you don’t have a WIP handy, find pictures of people from image sites and practice on them. Try to give the barest possible “standard” description you can, while including details you usually wouldn’t. Because this is practice, make them as long as you want; longer than you’d probably use in a story. Do this for at least three individuals, and try to use models that don’t look anything like each other, so you have lots of ground to cover.


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Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part III — Dialogue

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I left dialogue for last because, for me, it’s the aspect of writing I have the least trouble with. The initial spark for most of my scenes is usually a snippet of conversation; I’ve built entire novels from an idea that evolved from two characters talking about something strange. (I’ve been tempted, sometimes, to share the first scene I wrote for the earliest draft of What We Need to Survive–it looks almost nothing like the scene that made it into the book. I’m afraid if I go back to look at it now, five years later, I’ll cringe to hard and won’t be able to post it!)

So, in the first part I talked about narrative, and in the second, action.

Dialogue, while it may be easy for me to write naturally, may be trickier to add after the fact. How can you tell your writing needs more dialogue?

  • The primary source of information is internal monologue or other narrative. For some stories, this may be the right choice, but ideally a reader gets important information from all available sources, including dialogue. If everything comes from a single source–like a first-person narrator–then we only get one worldview, and other characters have no chance to speak for themselves. (Also, it leaves the reader vulnerable to unreliable narrators, which can be great if it’s on purpose, but awful if it’s not carefully constructed. In most other cases, multiple information sources are best.) Consider: would adding any dialogue to this scene give you a chance to incorporate more information the reader needs? Would any information already included be more or less reliable (depending on your story aims) coming from a different source?
  • Your action scenes are silent. Think about it. If two or more people are fighting, there are going to be taunts or insults hurled along with the fists and feet. If one person is chasing another, somebody’s probably yelling: the chaser, or bystanders on the street who are getting shoved out of the way. Even a character alone in a dire situation will probably vocalize something: cries for help if they’re in danger, swearing if they’re frustrated by something, talking to themselves to calm their nerves if they’re anxious. It’s not impossible, of course, but people rarely react to high-energy situations with silence. Consider: what would a natural reaction to this scene be for an Average Joe character, and what would they say? If that doesn’t feel genuine to your actual character, why and how would it be different? Would adding dialogue to show that reaction enhance the scene?
  • It was applicable for action, and it’s applicable for dialogue: have I gone too long without mentioning a character? Lengthy passages of description or world-building can be broken up by dialogue as easily as action. To return to my hiker-in-the-forest example, after a chunk of narrative about the forest itself, your hiker could say something out loud in reaction to an attention-grabbing element. If you’ve ever watched a video someone takes of a wild animal approaching them, you know they’re always talking, and not necessary to the camera. Hey, look at you, cute little fox or OH MY GOD THAT BEAR IS HUGE IS IT COMING THIS WAY. And if your hiker’s not alone, even better; intersperse dialogue with their companion throughout their hike. Consider: what elements of this scene would be better conveyed through dialogue than description? Should I describe the sunset or show my characters reacting to it? Would they talk to the fox or be silent, hoping it comes closer?

If this seems more vague than the other two entries in the series, well, you’re observant, because it is. It has to be. The trouble with dialogue, more so than narrative or action, is that it’s the most obvious spot to fall out of character; I’m more likely, as a reader, to notice when someone says something I don’t think they would say, than if they mention a description of something I don’t think they’d notice or take some small action they normally wouldn’t. Both of those things are possible, of course, and with strong characterization they’d also be problems–but in my reading, at least, out-of-character actions are usually deliberate mysteries set up by the author; out-of-character narrative just isn’t common enough for me to generalize; but out-of-character dialogue is all too easy to find. (Especially in television shows; with multiple writers on staff writing many different characters, slip-ups happen. I still remember some really OOC lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years later.)

All of my advice here can only be general; I can’t tell you your deliberately silent-stoic character should be shouting from the rooftops when they have a crush on someone, because you know it’s out of character. But if your talkative, charismatic ladies’ man is sitting silently drinking in a crowded bar…well, shouldn’t he be talking? Flirting with someone? Chatting up the bartender? If he’s not, that tells us something about his mood, and if that’s your point, great! But if you just forgot to give him appropriate dialogue, if you didn’t let him be himself as he would in that setting, then it’s an oversight, and adding dialogue would solve it.

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part II — Action

In Part I, I discussed what to do when you find your writing lacking narrative depth–description, internal monologue, and world-building. Today I’m going to tackle one of the other three major components of a text: action.

For context, when I say “action” I’m not talking about it in the narrow sense of “action” movies–fight scenes, explosions, and car chases. In this sense, I mean it quite literally–action is when something (a character or part of the environment) acts in some way. John walked across the room. A broken tree branch fell to the ground. Lily tossed her hair indignantly. The little boy cried because his ice cream fell off the cone and onto the sidewalk.

In every case, something is happening. This is your opportunity for strong verb choice–there’s no “to be” conjugations found here. (At least, not as primary verbs. Because English tenses get funky, they’ll still show up as auxiliary ones, but that’s another post.)

How can you tell your writing lacks action? Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to focus more on narrative or dialogue, and that’s fine if you’re doing it deliberately. But if you have long passages of narrative (be they description or exposition dumps) your writing can feel flat or monotonous. If you focus too much on dialogue, you end up with what’s often called the “talking heads” effect–characters constantly speaking back and forth without moving, thinking, or stopping to observe their environment or each other. That can be useful in short or tense exchanges, but over longer conversations it can feel bouncy, ungrounded in reality, or confusing.

The solution, of course, isn’t to drop a fight scene where one doesn’t belong or crash a helicopter into the forest you’re describing. You don’t need to change the plot as a whole or the focus of the scene, to insert more action. (You can, but you don’t have to.) You just need to ask yourself a few questions, depending on context:

  • Could my characters be moving right now, and if so, how could that enrich the scene? A conversation that used to be sitting in a booth at a diner could move outside instead while characters are walking, giving you a less static environment for them to interact with. If it has to stay at the diner for whatever reason, how are your characters gesturing as they speak? When do they take a bite of their sandwich? Who’s the one more likely to look over every time the door opens? There’s no hard rule for balancing dialogue with action, because the needs of every scene will be different, but in general, break up more than three or four changes in speaker by inserting an action. If you’re using lots of one-liners, you might be able to go a little longer; if you’re using bigger blocks of dialogue, maybe every two or three. If your characters are discussing something serious and you want a slow pace, you can use action with every chunk of dialogue, though that is its own trap as well. The demands of the scene come first, but be conscious of when a lot of one thing becomes too much.
  • Can something or someone from the environment interact with my characters in a useful way? We’ve all seen the meet-cute where the wind blows something out of one character’s hand for another to pick up and return to them; but it doesn’t have to be so forced. If you need a character to pause for a beat before they answer a question, have that wind blow their hair across their face, so they take the time to push it aside. If one person would rather not be having this conversation in the first place, they might seize on any distraction the setting offers them–a blaring car alarm, a flock of birds taking flight, a lost child in need of rescue. Sure, that last one’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t know what your story needs–it’s just an example. To go back to my diner setting from above, if a character jumps in their seat when they hear a dish crashing in the kitchen, it could tell your readers a few different things, depending on the effect you want: that they’re anxious in general, or about this situation in particular; that they weren’t paying close attention and the noise “woke them up”; or alternately, that they were so focused on their conversation partner that the noise reminded them where they were, because they’d tuned it out. Blank rooms may be a description problem, but blank environments don’t let your characters exist in a real, living space. Give them something to do beyond the scope of the person they’re talking to.
  • Have I gone too long without mentioning a character at all? A long paragraph of description about the forest your protagonist is hiking through might include “action” sentences, like a bird darting from tree to tree or a deer passing at a distance. But if the majority of the block of text is clearly for descriptive purposes, it might be time to refocus on the hiker. What was the last thing they did or said? How long ago was that on the page? Did you remember what it was before you found it, or has it been so long on the narrative tangent that you weren’t sure? Just like long passages of dialogue, too much description, exposition, or world-building can be broken up with brief bits of action to keep momentum going. It can be trickier if you’re explaining a necessary bit of fantasy-world politics or history, of course; world-building has a host of challenges I can’t begin to cover in the narrow context of underwriting action. But if you can’t find a way to insert action, it might be a sign you’re info-dumping and you need to trim it down or chop it into smaller pieces to scatter through the story more naturally.
  • Can I replace any dialogue or narrative directly with action? This is a more advanced/limited technique, but it has its moments. A character doesn’t need to think that a sunset or a scenic view is pretty, or say so to a companion, if you show them climbing a big rock to get a better vantage point. In a chase scene, you wouldn’t need the pursuer to state that they lost their target if you show them coming to an intersection and twisting in every direction to catch sight of them. (I bet you could imagine that one easily–movies use it all the time, but they often double down by having the pursuer say “I’ve lost them” out loud, even when it’s obvious to the audience. If they’re informing a third party listening in on the phone or another communication device, okay, I’ll grant that. But simply saying it to themselves? Totally unnecessary. I’d rather they swear at the end of the scene to show me they’re frustrated by their failure!) Converting a story beat from one type to another can be challenging, but this is the pinnacle of the adage “show, don’t tell” and can liven up any scene, cut down on repetition, and prove you trust your readers to connect the dots on their own.

As with my first post on narrative, this is meant to be an overview on adding/improving the action in your writing, not a comprehensive list of all possible issues, and definitely not a “one size fits all” solution. These questions are a set of tools I’ve developed for myself based on my own observed weaknesses; other authors handing out their own writing advice will offer other perspectives. If mine don’t suit your needs, I hope you’ll use this as a jumping-off point for further research into solutions that work for you!

Coming soon: Part III, on dialogue!

How to Deal with Sex Scenes in Your Writing: Part II

In Part I, I did my best to present a balanced approach to when and how to include sex scenes in your work.

Here in Part II, there’s no balance to be found. I don’t have multiple angles of attack to offer when writing the nitty-gritty of the scene itself; I can only tell you the process I’ve developed for myself, which might surprise you.

And what is my sage advice? Overwrite everything.

No detail is too small to include. No word is off-limits like you may see in other sex-writing advice, that would have you shy away from verbs like “thrusting.” No desire is too base to depict, no emotion too dramatic, no body part too unmentionable.

Be graphic. Be indulgent. But most of all, be thorough.

“But, Elena!” I hear you gasp. (Let’s assume at least some of you are gasping and clutching your pearls.) “You’re telling me to write porn!”

Yes. Yes, I am. Get it all on the page and leave no question exactly who is doing what to whom and how they all feel about it.

When you’re done, set it aside for a bit. Work on a different scene, or another project, or take a break for an hour or a day or a week, whatever you need to reset your brain.

Before you look at that wonderful and naughty porn draft again, evaluate what your story needs this scene to be, according to your comfort level and the guidelines I laid out in Part I. That’s going to help you figure out how far back you’re going to scale when you edit, because yes, you’re editing this right now, not in a future draft.

Then, reread the scene and cherry-pick your best bits. What strikes you as good, what makes you feel alongside these characters, what gets to the heart of the action. Mark those lines somehow–I recommend highlighting–and make sure they survive the cuts.

Next, cut anything that repeats something from your best lines without adding to it. Cut anything that is pure mechanics or stage direction unless it’s absolutely necessary to understand the flow of the action. Cut, or at least trim down, any description that distracts from the point of the scene.(Remember, I told you to overwrite, so you should find at least some stuff that ends up being unnecessary.)

Some hypothetical examples for illustration of what to keep and what to toss:

  • Setting detail could be useful if it displays something about the dynamic between the characters–if a working-class man finds himself in a rich woman’s lavish bedroom for a tryst, I’d want to know what catches his eye about her furniture and decorations, and how that makes him feel. But if two college kids are going at it on a blanket in the forest because neither of their roommates ever leaves their dorm rooms, then I probably don’t care about extensive descriptions of the trees–just mention some bird song or dappled sunlight and it will get the point across.
  • Physical detail is great to heighten awareness of other senses, but unless you’re opening the story with sex, you’ve probably described the characters before. Don’t reiterate stuff we already know about them, but use the extra intimacy of the scene to reveal new information–hidden tattoos or scars or piercings for the visuals; how they smell is always a good choice because smell is the most neglected sense in most writing; how they sound (different than usual) when they’re turned on, and so forth. Don’t just repeat their hair or eye color!
  • How much dialogue to use is a tricky thing to generalize about because it’s going to depend a lot on how the characters already speak. Readers usually want the personal stuff as pillow talk: back story if it’s relevant, emotional honesty, vulnerability. Do include explicit consent. Do include dirty talk as long as it reveals something about the character using it, but don’t use too much or make it too generic (unless that’s the point; in an as-yet unpublished work, I have a dude who sucks at dirty talk but I include it anyway to show how much his partner has to try to be excited about sleeping with him. Not a healthy relationship, they don’t stay together for many reasons, and yes, I wanted to use their sex life to help demonstrate that.)

Okay, you’ve marked the best bits and cut the worst bits. You probably still have a lot that is in between. Look for ways to strengthen those parts by rewriting them until they better fit the mood you’re aiming for. If that doesn’t seem to work, is it something that can be summarized and rolled into something else? Can you minimize it instead of cutting it entirely?

And finally, once the scene is mostly flowing in the direction you want it to, go back over your word choice and consider your audience and their expectations. Are there any terms in what you have left of your original porno version that strike you as too crass? Too clinical? Do you have a character using a term you’re not sure they’d actually say, or maybe not even know? Substitute other words until you have something you’re comfortable with, something that seems authentic to your characters and doesn’t sound too jarring. If you need help, look up word lists and euphemisms–I promise they’re out there!

(Side note: I’m personally begging all non-UK authors not to use the c-word to refer to a person’s vagina. I can’t stop the Brits, I’m aware it’s not considered nearly as foul a word there, though I can’t help cringing when it comes up in their works. I grew up believing it’s one of the strongest gendered insults there is and it doesn’t belong anywhere outside of that context.)

Okay. Still with me? You’re almost done. Set it aside again if you need to, or dive right back in at the beginning, and read it out loud. (Or have a text-to-speech program read it to you.) You might blush, you might squirm, you might wish you were doing anything else. But you’re going to hear any problems you didn’t catch last time around, and bonus: exposure is making you more comfortable with the idea of writing and reading about sex. (Could I have written these blog posts so candidly five years ago before I published my first novel, with my first sex scenes? Oh, hell no. It took a lot of beta readers telling me I did good before I felt ready to put that out into the world.)

And there you have it!

Honestly, at this point it probably needs more work, just like your whole first draft needs more work, even though this one scene has already had some rewriting applied. You’re still going to want to line-edit and proofread it just like anything else, but the hard part is behind you. Pour yourself a drink (if that’s a thing you do) or treat yourself to some chocolate or a piece of cheesecake or whatever. You did it. You wrote a sex scene.

How to Deal with Sex Scenes in Your Writing: Part I

Sex is a part of many’s peoples lives, and good fiction should reflect that reality. But not every story needs sex, just as not every person wants sex, and there are certainly genres that suffer for its inclusion (don’t ask me why a cozy mystery I read years ago had a steamy, raunchy sex scene in it, so out of place, I can’t explain that, please don’t do it.)

But sex abounds in many genres; if you’re writing romance, it’s often a reader expectation, and if you’re writing erotica, well, then it’s the entire point. If you’re not prepared for the idea of writing a sex scene when you start your story, stumbling later across the need to include one can prove a serious block.

In my years of digging through writing advice on the internet, “how do I write a sex scene?” and “how do I not be embarrassed writing a sex scene?” are, anecdotally at least, two of the most common questions I see being asked. I’ve handed out dribs and drabs of that kind of advice before, but I’ve never bothered to put together my thoughts formally, so here we go!

Question #1: Does your story actually need sex?

I touched on this above with genre, but even that isn’t always a clear guide. Plenty of romances end with a first kiss and are still romance, because while sex scenes are common, they’re not universal. And if you’re writing something else, it’s really going to depend. There’s always heat in the YA universe about how much sex there should be in titles aimed at teenagers and how to depict it responsibly when it’s included. Any Hero’s Journey sort of tale, regardless of the parent genre, could include a romantic (and thus, possibly sexual) element when the Hero gets the Girl in the end as his reward–but that’s a pretty toxic view on female agency, so really dig in and decide why it needs to be there. (Or subvert the heck out of it, but that’s another topic entirely.) James-Bond-style action has sex baked into its DNA, but in thrillers, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s absent. It’s going to depend, and some of your decision may be driven by how genre-saavy you are.

But across all fiction, the ultimate common-denominator answer for including sex should be the same standard for questioning other actions or plot points: does this tell the reader something about the characters that they can’t get any other way? If the honest answer to that is no, then the sex scene you were wondering about is probably unnecessary.

Question #2: What are the different styles of sex scene and how do I use them?

First choice: the “fade to black” scene. It’s not sex, it’s implied sex. The characters involved get a little cozy with each other, maybe engage in some PG-rated foreplay, and (hopefully) there’s clear intent and consent established. Then the metaphorical lights drop and the scene fades out before any more blatant sexual acts happen.

When to use it? Well, anytime, if that’s all your comfortable doing as an author. But more specifically, it’s best deployed when it’s crucial to the story to establish the characters have a sexual relationship, for whatever reason, but the sex itself wouldn’t drive the narrative forward.

When not to use it? Erotica is right out, obviously. But while I’ve seen a handful of lighter romances use it successfully, I’ve seen plenty that handle it poorly, even to the point where there’s no scene transition, just a paragraph break between the “characters get handsy” and “basking in the afterglow” stages. Be aware that cutting the “actual” sex out of a scene too abruptly can leave readers annoyed, disappointed, or even confused about what did or didn’t happen–it’s most effective to use a clear scene break and establish that time has passed.

Second choice: show the sex happening, but a) keep it short, and b) don’t go into much detail. When I’ve read these types of scenes, that can range from a single paragraph overview that focuses more on the emotions being felt, to a full page or two of dialogue and/or internal monologue mixed with the most basic mechanics of the situation.

When to use it? This is partially reader expectation–as I’ve mentioned, many romance readers do expect sex in their stories–but also this is the better choice when the sex “matters” more than a fade-to-black scene transition would allow for. If the sex sparks some kind of emotional turmoil or epiphany in the POV character, you’ve got to have a place for that to happen, narratively speaking; off-screen won’t do. But again, if the nitty-gritty of the characters going at it in detail won’t enrich your plot, then keep it zippy and move on.

When not to use it? If you’ve established a sex scene needs to happen at all, there really aren’t serious downsides to this option, excepting reader expectations. But that’s a tricky beast to handle and you’re never going to satisfy everyone, because any given group of readers can have opinions ranging from “this took to long to get to the sex/the sex wasn’t sexy enough” to “OMG I can’t believe these two jumped in the sack like that so fast/how they did/where they did.” (And since I often skim other reviews of the romances I read, yes, this has really happened, one reader will complain about a lack of enough sex scenes in the same book another will insist had too much or the wrong type of sex. You can’t please everyone, and sex especially is so personal. Do your best to your own comfort level, and at least some people will enjoy it.)

Third choice: As graphic as you want to be, baby, no holds barred for as long as it takes.

When to use it? This is obviously the go-to choice for erotica, but it has its place in romance, too, if the sex scenes themselves don’t overwhelm the story through sheer quantity. While erotica may focus more on titillating and arousing the reader, in romance these prolonged, detailed scenes are often about demonstrating sex as an opportunity for bonding and emotional growth. If you want to give your characters plenty of narrative time to fight, or banter, or laugh together, or realize deeper feelings, then a longer and more substantial sex scene allows you that time.

When not to use it? Lots of times. Were you on the fence about including a sex scene to begin with? Then you probably want a simpler one. Is it rare to find sex scenes in your chosen genre? Then you probably want a simpler one. Are you uncomfortable with who might read this (friends/family) or what you might inadvertently reveal about your own sex life? Definitely go with one of the first two options.

Sadly, I can’t tell you how not to be embarrassed by writing sex scenes and letting other people read them. It was a concern of mine at first, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But at some point, you either have to decide to embrace it, or not. There are certainly baby steps you could take, like posting anonymous smut somewhere and seeing what the reaction to your style is, before you show anyone your “real” work. But that is extra work, and it’s not going to be right for everyone.


I had thought originally to dive right in from here on how to write sex scenes, or at least, how I write them, but it turns out I had a lot of thoughts first on whether they’re necessary and how to approach them. So Part II of this probably-two-part series will be covering that instead!