writing


Ever come around a corner and seen a vista so perfect it literally took your breath away? Ever been in a place with such a perfect combination of setting, weather and atmosphere that you almost cry for the sheer perfection of it and the feeling that you’ll never get that moment back again? I’m sure most of us have had times like that and if you haven’t I’m genuinely sorry. They’re priceless.  

So how do you capture them forever? One way is with a photograph, or a video, although they only capture the look of things and not the feel. Another way is to use them to inspire a piece of writing which, although it doesn’t preserve the physical impression perfectly, can at least convey what things felt like.

When our children were younger we spent a morning on this beach:

It was perfect, unspoiled and there were only two other people on it. We’ve been back since and all the world and his wife have discovered it; we’ll never have those perfect moments again (unless we get down there crack of dawn).  But Jonty and Orlando can experience what we did when they visit Jersey, so I’ve sealed our feelings safely away in their story by using the beach as their special place.

Another holiday moment happened at Arromanches. We parked the car on a clifftop car park, walked over a little ridge and saw this:

The ruins of the Mulberry harbour out at sea, and in the foreground a field of barley with poppies. It was the poppies which got to me and I was soon in tears. That sight inspired several bits of AU fanfic, and has been weaved into another very short story, almost as if I have to keep writing that sight, and my emotions, out of my system.

This is the next ‘special moment’ I have to capture in a story:

Anyone else got ones they want to share?

This Monday just gone saw the first local Romantic Novelists’ Association lunch of 2011. Good food, good company, always something to learn and always a great chinwag. This time we didn’t have a speaker. Instead we all read the first 250 words from one of our works (finished or yet to be) and discussed them. In total there must have been about 14 offerings, from authors with dozens of books under their belts to the newest newbies. 

What amazed me was how different they all were. All good, but as varied as chalk, cheese and chewed pen lids. Within that small amount of words (a double drabble and a half) the tone of the story was set, the writer’s “voice” was instantly recognisable, you could get a pretty clear idea in all bar a couple of cases about where the story was going to go and you knew the era/seeting even where there hadn’t been a Cambridge 1907 type heading at the start.

And – maybe most important of all – I think you had a ninety percent chance of knowing whether you wanted to read more. While all the intros were good, not all of them piqued my interest enough to think, “Read on, read on!” Which led me to think about submitting stories and the importance of them making an instant impact.

I remember, on the I Do and I Do Two projects, how we could pretty well tell by the end of the first page whether a submitted story was a ‘goer’. The same applies where submission calls ask for a chapter or three. It’s not helping your cause to say, “The first few chapters are a bit slow” or “they don’t represent the story as a whole”. They’re the first bit the editor will see and if he/she isn’t sold, what chance have you got of nabbing a reader? Do we have the patience to plough through three chapters of intro to get to “the good stuff”?

By T.J Pennington

As a professional freelance editor, I’ve learned to dread the appearance of certain things in manuscripts. Colons and semi-colons, for example, seem to confuse almost everyone. Misspellings are headaches in and of themselves, given that the rules for spelling in English differ depending on what country the writer is in—and what’s considered standard English for that particular country.

But the two things that make me headdesk the most are coyness and historical inaccuracy. And I feel so strongly about both that I think each deserves its own article. So let’s start with coyness.

I will start by saying that there is a time and a place to be coy about sexual matters. If the person speaking is a maiden aunt, or a lady or gentleman trying to discuss sexual matters publicly without shocking or offending society, a young teen whose upbringing has been so sheltered that she simply doesn’t know any other words to use…yes, coyness would be appropriate then, for it would indicate something of the way the character spoke, thought and felt.

But there are also times when euphemisms simply don’t fit the character’s point of view. I have vivid recollections of a book I read (but did not edit) whose main character was a pirate captain. The pirate described in gory anatomical detail all the tortures he would visit on his captives—and then stopped to wax poetic about the “delicate pink rosebud” of a nearly naked and well-muscled young prisoner.

Now, the pirate also went into raptures about the captive’s “ivory” complexion—keep in mind that the captive was supposed to be an experienced sailor on a merchant vessel and that this was roughly three hundred years before sunblock—and the defiance in “his sea-blue eyes”. However, the “delicate pink rosebud” was what really got me. Because the character didn’t have any problems swearing, threatening violence or being violent. He was a realistic sea-going thief and murderer, and I loved that. But every time the young blond captive appeared, the pirate turned into a little milk-and-water miss from the Regency, babbling bad poetry (“Phoebus-kissed locks of my belovéd,” anyone?) and unable to call an arsehole an arsehole. Or a cock a cock, for that matter. I shudder to recall that Pirate Pete blithered on about his boyfriend’s “impressive foremast,” instead.

So if I were drawing up a list of rules, that would be number one–make sure the character’s language fits his or her personality. Because honestly, if you’ve got a rough, tough, hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ guy as your point-of-view character, he’s probably not going to think of his penis as “my bald-headed butler” on a daily basis. And if another man is pressed up against this tough guy in a crowd and Tough Guy can feel the other man’s dick, he’s most likely not going to be thinking,”I could feel the stranger’s monstrous, mountainous manhood against me.”

(I particularly dislike “manhood” as a euphemism, as there’s a lot more to manhood than merely possessing a penis. I’ve known plenty of people who possessed penises who were, and who remain, dicks rather than men. And yes, pun very much intended.)

Now, there are some publishers who–understandably–encourage euphemisms; you’re not likely to find much profanity or vulgarity in an inspirational romance, for example. But most of the time, the dreadful euphemisms that are so at odds with the rest of the characterization are the responsibility, not of editors, but of the writers themselves. Why? For one, some or all of the following reasons:

1) They want to send a signal that the sex is an expression of love.

Since sex physically operates the same way whether the parties involved love each other or not, the writers often resort to having one character finding unexpected aspects of another character attractive. I’m not certain why this is supposed to tell me that the characters love each other, as it’s possible in real life to find someone gorgeous and not love him or her in the slightest. But in fiction, it seems to be a kind of shorthand: sex + finding the other person beautiful/handsome = True Love.

2)  It’s the only way that they’ve ever seen sex scenes written in the books that they’ve read.

Whether coyness is still common in het romances, I don’t know; it’s been a long time since I read any. But I used to read them at my grandmother’s—mostly because during the summer after my mother’s death, I got dropped off at her house daily while my aunt went to work. And there was nothing else there to read. So I remember the emphasis on manhoods and lotus blossoms and raped women consenting and not consenting. (I was quite surprised later to find that was a quote from Shakespeare.)

And this happened even in books where both the hero and the heroine were modern businesspeople and supposedly sophisticated members of society. Somehow, the same paisley language kept being used, whether it was appropriate for the characters or not.

I have a feeling that many writers, especially many new writers of male/male romances—both men and women—simply haven’t realized that there are other ways of writing romance, and that same-sex romance does not have obey opposite-sex romance tropes.

Nor is this surprising. I’ve read that painters used to paint horses with human-like eyelashes framing their eyes–even though horses do not have human-like eyelashes—because horses had always been painted that way. If you ask a child to paint a stream flowing through a wood, the child will probably crayon the stream in blue, even though water is not blue. It only looks blue in photographs where it’s reflecting the sky. We see things, not necessarily as they are, but as we are used to seeing them. It’s a trick, not of the eye, but of the mind. And it’s very, very hard to get past that.

Finally, we come to the most frustrating reason of all.

3) The writers—or perhaps the publishers–genuinely want to make the sex scene beautiful.

Unfortunately, what one person finds beautiful, another may not—and that includes both coyness and purple prose. Which is why you get passages like this:

“Out of one of his luminous eyes a single tear dropped like silvery jasper. Yet even now his eloquent phallic erection stood its ground. His brain and heart might quake; this rose-gold warrior, primed with battle-juice, was too forthright and too wise yet to surrender.”

“Rose-gold warrior”? “Primed with battle-juice”? And is it possible for an erection not to be phallic? Also, I doubt that “forthright,” “wise” or “eloquent” are good descriptions for any sex organ. (If you do happen to know of an honest, intelligent and/or talkative penis, I am deeply sorry for you.)

But I’m sure that the author–Tanith Lee, in a short story called “The Woman”–thought this passage was lovely.

Second, there are quite a number of people who are unwilling to use any but euphemistic terms on the grounds that anything else—whether crude or clinical—is somehow inappropriate. Either they fear that they will offend readers, or the non-euphemistic terms offend them.

Pity the editor, therefore, who has to struggle through coy, overwritten sex scenes…and who then must convince the writer that “in another moment his hand invaded my mossy crevice (The Life and Amours of the Beautiful, Gay and Dashing Kate Percival by Kate Percival ), “the man searched hungrily among swollen cacti for the right one to suck” (The Pleasure Chateau by Jeremy Reed), “with the come from myself strewn like white filigree” (The Last Ship by William Brinkley), or “our caged vipers hissed for release” (The Boy With Black Eyes by Brian Lucas) are not beautiful euphemisms, but, in fact, will make readers alternately groan and burst out laughing.

It’s a problem, because no writer likes the editing process. Every writer hopes that the editor won’t change too much—that, in fact, the editor will see that the work is both brilliant and artistic just as it is, and doesn’t need to be changed. I don’t blame anyone for this. It’s understandable. I’m in the same boat.

However…when the writer likes certain coy phrases or euphemisms, the writer may repeat them.

When this happens, I, as an editor, have to pick and choose my battles. I may not be able to read the phrase “his massive shaft” without thinking of either a black private investigator from the 1970s or a coal mine…but I’ll let the phrase stand if that means that I can say, “You already used that phrase once. You don’t have to use it in every one of the next nineteen sentences in the scene.” This way the author feels that he or she has gotten some use out of a pet phrase, at any rate. And I get to feel that one such use is better than twenty.

Of course, coy phrases about genitalia aren’t the only ones that recur. Sometimes you run into a writer who insists on telling you over and over that the lover of the protagonist not only possesses the aforementioned massive shaft but that he has “a strong, masculine scent.”

This one pops up a lot, and I have yet to decipher it. The description is generally given before the protagonist and the love interest have sex, so it’s not that the lover smells of come. The smell can’t be sweat, because men and women both sweat. And speaking of that…the scent is described as “strong” as well as “masculine.” Is the author trying to convey that the character is muscular—or is he or she saying that the character reeks? According to the sentence structure, that’s what the author is saying…but I’m not entirely sure that’s what he or she intends to say.

Sometimes, though, it’s not so much that the phrase is badly crafted as it is which character is saying it. When the author is in a hurry to establish that the protagonist really does deserve the attention of the love interest, he or she may not pay attention to what such a speech implies about the speaker.

For example, it’s fine if the guy who is lusting after Paul Protagonist describes Paul as having handsome features, a lean and sinewy body and a tight arse. However, if Paul’s doting father introduces himself by describing his son that way, I’m going to start thinking of some deeply wrong reasons for the man to be checking out his son’s body and rear end.

That said, I sympathize with the authors. I do. It is not easy to write love scenes or sex scenes, and most writers are trying not only to do so skillfully but to write something passionate, believable and unique. And it’s particularly difficult to do so in a historical, where half of the sexual vocabulary that the audience is familiar with doesn’t exist yet.

But—if you have a choice—opt for simplicity and clarity rather than ornate descriptions. Calling a cock a cock is infinitely less sporfle-worthy than describing it as “a rare bud of an exotic flower about to explode in a bloom of erotica” (33: A Gay Love Story by J.J. South).

***

T. J. Pennington is a freelance professional editor. She has edited Frost Fair by Erastes, Normal Miguel by Erik Orrantia, The Glass Minstrel by Hayden Thorne, Prove A Villain by K.C. Warwick and the upcoming A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson. She also reviews books for Speak Its Name, the only review site on the web focusing on gay historicals, and runs Femgenficathon on LiveJournal, an annual celebration–now in its seventh year–of great women in fiction. She is currently working on a novel that could best be described as “medieval steampunk.” She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and can be contacted at traceyjpennington@gmail.com.

So, I thought that rather than struggling to find something to write about each month, such as a SUBJECT and be all professorial about the subject of writing and of writing and researching gay historical fiction, I’d just write about my month–and the general ups and downs of Being An Author.

Now, I’m lucky, in many ways. Some people would probably look at my house, my clothes, my lack of jobbiness, my life and they probably wouldn’t agree with me, but for me, having the luxury of Not Being a Wage Slave anymore and treating writing as a Job is a dream come true.

My routine, now I’m settling down to it, is to go to Dad’s, make him breakfast, tidy up etc then I settle down with a pot of coffee and write for an hour – make lunch – then write for an hour if I can in the afternoon.

Trouble is, Dad has no internet access. I was able to connect now and then using the BT Openzone, but even that seems to have disappeared.  I could of course get him Broadband, although he has no use for it–but I could. I would feel a bit mean about it, spending his money on my work, and I know he wouldn’t mind. But I decided to try and manage without internet access – it only makes me procrastinate, I thought-so I’d be better off without it. I’m quite capable  of spending all day refreshing my friends page, planting virtual vegetables and breeding  virtual dragons, so it’s probably better if I don’t have it.

But the research is a pain. I find myself hitting brick walls and at first I got quite despondent about it–I felt i WANTED to know these facts NOW – I’d been writing like this for years and to suddenly change my whole way of doing things was quite hard, but gradually I’ve learned to work a way around it.

Firstly, to be a bit more confident about what I know.

Secondly, to consider whether the readers REALLY need the level of detail I am going to impart, and

Thirdly – if I still need to know that fact to WRITE IT IN BLOCKS, HIGHLIGHT IT and look it up when I get home. Or when I do a tidy up of the manuscript.

So far I’m doing all right. The cold turkey approach to research was hard to take at first, but it’s becoming easier and actually it makes me concentrate more on the story rather than obsessing over what kind of carpet is down, or whether there was a railing at Windsor Great Lawns in 1921. It can wait.

Have this cured my procrastination, though? Has it Buffalo. I just find other stuff to do, like staring out the window at the birds for hours.

Well, I suppose it beats planting virtual vegetables.

Erastes

Erastes is the penname of a female author who lives on the Norfolk Broads in England. She likes cheese and cats, but only one of those are nice on toast.

Mid November I attended my first big authors’ bash (big as in there being two hundred people there, as opposed to the authors being either physically big or big names, although there were both of those present!) It was the Romantic Novelists Association Winter Party, at the IMechE library in Birdcage Walk (a street which now makes me grin madly in the context of its mention on last week’s Garrow’s Law).

I managed to pluck up the courage to go and talk to strangers and not (I hope) look or sound like an absolute goon. I chatted with aspiring writers, established writers, publishers and booksellers. Did I ‘network?’ No, I don’t think so; certainly not in terms of trying to sell myself or my books. And it was a real novelty, for someone who still thinks of herself as both a newbie and entirely accidentally published, to be dispensing ‘wisdom and tips’ to wannabee authors.

Something I did sort of network was the fact that I write gay fiction. And that I’m published in both e-books and paperbacks. I suspect I was in the minority for the latter and unique for the former. Had to collect a few jaws as they headed towards the floor as I explained what genre I wrote. However, I didn’t have my pen pulled out of my handbag, name tag ripped from my chest and get sent from the room is disgrace. I surprised myself at my sheer degree of brass neck in terms of not hiding in a corner or “umming and ahing” about what I write. Mind you, as a fifty two year old woman wearing her teenage daughter’s cocktail dress and side lacing boots, I suspect my degree of “don’t care any more” is pretty high.

Pictures here, luckily none of me.

I did end up at one point talking to an ex-RNA president (I’d been steered in her direction, much to my embarrassment) who was adamant that gay romance was equally eligible for the RNA award categories. Mine isn’t as it’s by an American publisher but it was a heartening thing to hear.

So what did I achieve by going? Other than a night out in London on my own and some blessed hours of peace and thinking time on the train journey? Well, writing can be a lonely business and talking to other writers and listening to their experiences is both educational and comforting. Sometimes you just like to know that you’re not the only person with that problem or finding this difficult. And I’m convinced that, for many of us, this business is not just about what you know, it’s who you know (that’s been very true for me and it seemed a bit depressing to have to share that with some of the aspirant writers). Friendships and connections made at bashes like this – who knows where they’ll lead?

Picture of Sisyphus, by Titian

In November a young writer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of NaNoWriMo.  This annual event with the ugly acronym is the National Novel Writing Month, during which a bunch of mad writers attempt to crank out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days.  It’s not too late if you want to have a go!  Sign up is here, and I’m reliably informed that the tighter the deadline, the easier it is to rack up the words. (more…)

Folks, I have been mulling about writing this post for some time now. Thinking I really need to speak up about it, but then pushing it away for fear that I might offend some of my online friends. But I kept coming back to the fact that by not speaking out about it, I am basically doing the same thing that I am about to accuse others of doing. That is, standing by and being silent because it serves my own interest.

So I’m about to tell you what has been troubling me. Now first of all, I completely understand why writers use pseudonyms to protect themselves and keep their private lives private. I have no problem with that at all. There are crazy people out there and it is wise not to put all your personal information on the Internet. But what I don’t understand is how some writers of gay-themed literature are so ashamed of what they write that they keep it secret from everybody in their private lives. Online, under a cloak of anonymity they are as proud as peacocks of their literary achievements, but privately they keep it hidden, feeling that it would be so humiliating if anyone found out that they write about gay love. And then I read blogs from these writers (again under pseudonyms) fuming about the injustices to gay people. They rant and rave about every suicide, every anti-gay politician, and every anti-gay referendum. That’s great. But I have a morbid suspicion that these same writers, so bold online yet privately so ashamed of the novels they have penned, are saying NOTHING in defense of gay rights to their families, friends and co-workers. That really steams me. Those who oppose us probably don’t have a whole lot of respect for anonymous bloggers, but they would be forced to re-evaluate their opinions if someone they knew personally stood up and challenged them.

Perhaps some of this shame has to do with the stigma attached to romance novels in general, and I’m sure there are writers of straight romance who conceal their professions as well, so it might be that this shame was partially inherited.

Recently there was a big brouhaha when LiveJournal temporarily allowed cross-posting of locked posts. I remember one writer getting very upset and said if anybody at her job found out she wrote gay books, she could lose her job. Really? Of course everyone I work with knows what I write and publish, but if I were in her shoes and my employer found out I write gay books and then fired me for it, I’d get a lawyer (Lambda Legal is ready and willing) and sue his ass for discrimination! I’m sorry, but keeping silent in the workplace while your co-workers are freely spouting their anti-gay rhetoric because you might lose your precious job is, in my humble opinion, cowardly.

Okay there I’ve said it. Now if you are a writer who is closeted about what you write but are still vociferous about gay rights, then I give you a pass, though I still think if you are ashamed of your work, then why bother, unless it is just to pay the bills, in which case I’d have to say you are merely prostituting yourself. I hope I’ve given some food for thought and haven’t offended anybody. But if I did, I can’t apologize for it, because I truly believe it needed to be said.

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