Monday, August 22, 2011

The Sex Blog

The weekend on bed rest gave me some time to catch up on a little reading around the blogosphere, including "What's Wrong with Sex?" by JA Konrath, one of the powerhouse voices in indie publishing. While Joe's books themselves aren't necessarily my cup of tea -- because of the genre, not the quality of writing -- I have tremendous respect for his views on publishing and read his blog whenever I can.

In this particular entry, Joe talked about adding some sex scenes to some of his very popular sci-fi/mystery novels, scenes he felt were important to the development of plot and characters. He was reflecting on the negative feedback (and even hate mail) he received from readers in response, describing his work as 'porn,' among other things. An interesting discussion ensued in the comments feed, with readers and authors alike expressing their views on when and if sex scenes are appropriate in fiction.

Some people think sex scenes in non-romance novels are lazy writing and cheap tactics to sell books. Others enjoy love scenes when they are well-written, appropriately placed and move the story forward or reveal something about the characters. Some readers are so uncomfortable with love scenes that they skip them entirely. Others will ONLY read books with a steamy scene or two. Or seven.

As I read the blog and the ensuing discussion, I found it interesting that more men than women seemed uncomfortable with love scenes in mainstream fiction (but not with out-and-out porn); while romance writers of all varieties were frustrated that even a single steamy scene in a book written by a female earned it the label "trashy romance" or "erotica."

As a writer of "women's" fiction (which incidentally has received plenty of positive feedback from men) I'm fascinated by the relationship between gender and genre. I still question my own decision to label The Marriage Pact as "Contemporary Women's Fiction," when I know that label confines both my writing and my readership in a way that is largely inaccurate.

Is TMP about love and romance and relationships? You bet. Do I imagine that the majority of readers taking that enormous engagement ring cover to the beach this summer were women? Probably. Do men also enjoy reading about relationships and drama and - gasp! - sex? I would argue yes -- particularly with good writing and strong characters in the right context.

For me as an author, that's the crux of the issue. There are the 'bodice-ripper' romance novels, which are often more sex than plot, and I know lots of women who love those books so much they go through four or five a week. Which is great for both the readers and writers. That just doesn't happen to be what I write.

The love scenes in TMP were a huge challenge for me, not because I'm personally squeamish about sex, but because I'm aware that in a novel like mine, sex is a little like a blow torch. Tee hee. Used appropriately, a love scene can show you something important about the characters: their vulnerability, motivations, state of mind, etc. Used gratuitously, sex is a mere distraction from the story, watering it down in a way that will cause readers to flip pages or lose interest entirely.

Just like scenery, suspense, violence, plot twists, and other writers' tools, sex has to be used intentionally and pointedly to help the reader connect with the characters and the world in which they live. It should compel you deeper into the story, not call attention to the author or the way the story is written. My goal as an writer is to constantly improve my craft, to bring you deeper into a world that is as real as it can be in every facet of the experience, sex (or not) and all.

What do you think of sex scenes in mainstream fiction? Does genre matter? Gender? Or is it all about the story?

Monday, August 8, 2011

I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you this

Maybe it's an occupational hazard (writer + counselor), but I often notice themes emerging in my life and work. Right now one of those themes, especially with my teen and adult female clients, is humiliating experiences. Most often things that might happen, and would be so devastating that the person would never recover. Falling down in front of the whole cafeteria, messing up a big presentation to the boss, giving a long speech with your skirt tucked into your underwear, etc.

This topic can be either horrifying or fun, depending which chair you're sitting in. We laugh when we see people embarrass themselves in the movies, and we can chuckle when funny things happen to our friends (provided said friend is unharmed and can't reach us with a right hook). But when our own pride is on the line, it stops being so funny.

These moments are part of what makes us human. That's why I write about embarrassingly funny things happening to my characters, especially poor Marci in TMP ("bless her heart," as we say in the South). It's not just to give the story comic relief, but to help readers connect with that universal experience of flailing around, feeling like an idiot, and somehow... surviving. Been there? I have.

With my teen clients, I sometimes try to offer perspective by telling the following story about my own life. And more than two decades later, I am only cringing a little as I share it with you...

It was my freshman year at North Cobb High School. The place seemed huge and alien to me. I was overweight and awkward, and always felt a bit out of place anyway. With its labyrinthine buildings, kids smoking and dipping in the parking lots, and more than two thousand souls roaming the halls, NCHS was pure chaos to me. My few old friends were a breath of fresh air when we managed to catch up in the cafeteria to compare battle scars.

Drama class had sounded like fun when we were choosing our electives. So there I was, with a few other freshmen and loads of upperclassmen. Cute, charming, and funny upperclassmen. Kids who auditioned for plays and participated in the talent shows and walked the hallways with their heads held high.

There was one senior guy in particular -- I would tell you his name but I think I have blocked it out -- the first of many crushes I would have on older men, especially actors. (We'll talk about that later.) Anyway, I mooned over Whats-His-Name for many weeks from across the room, trying to time my exit from the classroom so that I could bump into him and praying we'd be put in a skit together during class.

One day, my prayer was answered. Mrs. Walker, the larger-than-life drama teacher, asked me and Whats-His-Name to get up on stage and work through some kind of practice exercise. I'm sure I was shaking in my Keds and unfashionable khaki pants as I climbed the black wooden stairs to the stage. I vaguely remember standing across from him and that at some point in the skit, he may have needed to touch my hand for some reason. Hello, aneurism.

I don't remember anything else because of what happened next. We finished the skit, which must've required me to move around the stage a good bit, and instead of giving the constructive critique she'd provided all the previous teams, Mrs. Walker whispered something to my friend Melissa, who came up to the stage and in turn whispered to me, "Mrs. Walker says you're excused to go to the restroom."

Now all the ladies reading this probably need no further explanation, but for the guys, let me illuminate something. When you're twelve years old and you get your first period, the women in your life go to great lengths to explain what pads and tampons are, what a uterus is, and how you're way too young to have a baby in there, etc. What they don't tell you is that for some girls, periods don't come at predictable intervals you can mark on the calendar and plan accordingly. Sometimes they disappear for months at a time, only to return smack in the middle of drama class.

My cheeks burned as I tried to quickly gather my stuff and run to the restroom, holding my bookbag behind me to hide the red stain as I fled down the deserted hallway. I called my mom, who was nice enough to come and get me.

I'm sure before that day I had imagined some pretty awful and embarrassing things happening to me during freshman year, and none of them held a candle to this. When I left school, I was 100% positive that my life was over. In front of the whole class. In front of HIM. I knew people would be talking about it for years, which was okay because I had absolutely no intention of every returning to that school. They have schools in Alaska, right?

But it turns out my parents didn't think moving to Alaska just then was convenient for the family. Even less rationally, they seemed to think I would actually be able to survive returning to the same school the very next day. I probably should've called children's services to report this abuse, but I didn't know at the time it was an option. I don't remember how I handled the return to school, or to drama class, except that inexplicably, life eventually returned to normal. Somehow I went on to lead a full and satisfying life that did not involve being shunned by my peers (or at least, no more than usual) and did involve making new friends, dating, prom, etc.

I am, however, pretty sure I never worked up the courage to look Whats-His-Name in the eye again. Oh, well.

I do know that in the years that followed, I was less afraid of screwing up or being embarrassed. There were times when humiliating myself in public became a convenient, and funny, way to get the attention so many teenagers crave. As an adult, I've taken more calculated risks: backpacking through Europe, returning to grad school (twice), self-publishing a novel despite warnings it was "career suicide." I've done these things armed with the knowledge that the illusion of perfection means nothing, and flat-on-your-face failure is often the greatest teacher.

Perhaps some courage/chutzpah/stupidity was born as I recovered from horrifying moment on the drama room stage. It may not be profound, but I've learned that even the scariest outcome isn't usually life-threatening. The greatest risk in life is not getting on the stage at all.


You can get your hands on my most recent trip to the stage (and follow Marci's adventures - embarrassing and otherwise) at Amazon and Barnes & Noble (NOOK).