Filling the Gaps: Where’s the sex?

"Romance" covers show what readers want

“Romance” covers show what readers want

I’ve been working on Class Act today, hurrah! After too many days lost to sickness (me and the children) it was nice to get back to it, even if I didn’t make as much progress as I’d hoped. I had a pretty rough day yesterday and it is hard to write, for me, when I’m emotionally drained.

So I spent the time I had looking through my current draft of the novel to spot areas that needed expanding. As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to write the highlights in my first rough draft, and then have to go back and fill in the gaps during revision.

One thing I’ve noticed that I leave out a lot is the sex. My books are fairly chaste, particularly by modern standards. There isn’t much nookie, even though Baby Blues starts with a sex scene (which was originally more detailed than the final edit). I find it’s not something that gets added in unless I think of it. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading (and loving) Georgette Heyer novels. (Class Act definitely has elements of a Heyer story). Maybe it’s because I’m a mother of two small children, generally too exhausted to give much thought to nookie in my own life (sorry hubbie!)

It’s certainly unusual. Most of the chick lit books I grew up reading (aside from Heyer) have at least one or two sex scenes, from the sweet, to the implied, to the steamy. I enjoyed reading them in my teens and twenties, although I’m not a fan of erotica or books that have sex as the main focus. But it is generally a natural part of relationships and therefore plays a role in the character and plot development, so why do I leave it out?

My Latest Read - lots of kissing!

My Latest Read – lots of kissing!

I am noticing, as I read Twin Curse, that there’s lots of kissing and physical contact (and I’m sure eventually sex). And I wondered, is that why my books don’t sell well and don’t get reviews? In the days of Fifty Shades of Grey, am I not fulfilling the need for a bit of action? Certainly if you search ‘romance’ books on Amazon, the covers suggest that bedroom action is a key selling point. When I write my novels, my aim is usually to explore characters at life-changing points in their lives: change of career, change of priorities, change of heart. They fall in love, but that’s only part of the story. The demons they battle are in their minds and in their past. But, to make the relationships genuine, there has to be some physical attraction.

I remember watching an episode of Bones once (a TV show about a forensic anthropologist who is also an author). The lead protagonist is proud of her books, particularly the scientific aspects of them, but her fans buy and read them for the sex. She actually has a friend of hers help her with that aspect of the stories and eventually gives her friend a percentage of the book royalties because she realises it is the sex that is selling the books.

I suppose the phrase “sex sells” didn’t come about by accident. But it feels awkward for me to go through the story and inject sex scenes where there are none. Particularly in Class Act, where the physicality of the relationship is a core part of the story. I was shocked to discover I’d got to the climax scene in the first draft without the couple ever ending up in the bedroom – even though it was a core part of the story! (The same happened in Baby Blues but at least she had the excuse of being pregnant / a new mother!)

And then of course there is the issue of how steamy to be. I prefer implied action, because what is a turn on for one maybe a complete turn off for someone else. I remember reading Mills & Boon as a teenager and giggling over the “throbbing member” type descriptions. Focusing on the sensations and the emotions is probably more my style. But there is a danger that it all gets too introspective and unrealistic: people don’t typically have internal dialogue when they’re in the clinch of passion.

Anyway, I don’t really have the answers, but I was intrigued when I realised how unromantic and chaste my romance novel is in its early drafts. Maybe I should stick with writing YA or move into MG fiction. I’m obviously more interested in plot points than pants! But, for now, I need to fill the gaps. I’m sure hubbie will be happy if I do some research and inject some sex back into things! 😉

Defining the Climb

My Latest Read

My Latest Read

I finally started reading Twin Curse by Rinelle Grey this evening, having decided I’m ready to go back to kindle reading after a month of library paperbacks. And I realised, after my self-deprecating discussion of my own writing recently, that there is a place for all types of reads.

Not to suggest that Rinelle’s writing is anything other than great, because I love her work (I feel I’m digging a hole here. Bear with me!)  but, after the flowery dense descriptions of Maggie Stiefvater, it’s refreshing to get to grips with a standard format book, with clear limited third-person perspective, relatable characters and a promising storyline.

I started it for five minutes before bed (after mooching Facebook all evening because I’m between books and feeling poorly) and I’m already 14% through. I might never write the awe-inspiring prose I admired in The Dream Thieves, but if I can learn to spin a riveting yarn, then that’s good enough for me. (Again, I feel I’m unintentionally comparing Rinelle’s books unfavourably to Maggie’s. It’s not my aim. Sigh. Moving on.)

As I just got another low rating on Goodreads for one of my books (without a text review to explain why) I clearly still have some way to go. But a mountain is climbed one step at a time, and maybe sometimes it’s worth accepting that Ben Nevis is fine, and we can’t all conquer Everest.

And maybe sometime soon we’ll all stop being ill and I’ll be able to get back to climbing my mountains without poorly husband and child in tow!

Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves

When I write, both in my blog and my novels, I know that my language is straightforward – no deviation between signifier and signified. No real stretch of the imagination necessary to obtain meaning. I gently lead the reader by the hand as they wander through my stories without minimal effort required on their part.

Thinking about it this morning, I’ve decided this is due to three things: My inexperience as a writer of fiction, my background as an analyst and academic, and my constant lack of sleep. Taking those in order, this is how I see it:

1. My inexperience as a writer means I lack confidence and bravery. I over-explain to make sure the reader understands my story, knows what my characters are thinking and feeling. I dread “I don’t get it” and as a result probably get “I don’t feel it.”  Any tendency towards being different is slashed so that I can find acceptance. Any flowery description is deleted as ‘purple prose.’ (The person who edited Baby Blues crossed-out half the similes, saying, for example, “Or just ‘he slept'”)

2. Similarly, my business and academic background have kept my language uncomplex. Actually, that isn’t true of the academic writing: what that did for me was ingrain the passive tense as an acceptable form of language usage. “One could argue that …” is a historian’s stock phrase.

But marketing was all about saying what you meant in easy words. There’s a phrase in marketing, summarised as the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. One of my jobs working in Internal Comms was to take complex business documents and ‘translate’ them into briefings for the staff. I was good at seeing through difficult ideas and getting to the essence of the message.

It’s a useful skill as a parent of young children. I am constantly trying to break abstract ideas down into basic language. Unfortunately, nothing kills vocabulary quicker than not using it. Oh, apart from lack of sleep.

3. I can barely remember the colours of the rainbow on fewer than six hours’ continuous sleep and I hardly ever get anything near that these days. I remember at university, when I would pull all-nighters to complete essays: I’d stumble into the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., bleary eyed, and ask my housemates, “What’s another way to say Stalin was pissed off?”

Bereft that I've finished it!

Bereft that I’ve finished it!

Why am I writing this defence of my unsophisticated prose? I finished The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater last night, and was as blown away as I was by The Raven Boys (and slightly less put out at the ending, having braced myself with the knowledge that it’s a quartet of books.)

Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is beautifully rich. Meanings have to be wrestled from the often dense and opaque prose. Motivations, character’s feelings, and even the basic plot, are often hard to fathom, despite the novel being written in omnipotent third person. It is not a passive read.

What I love most is the way the language is mixed up. I’m struggling to describe it (for all the reasons listed above!) but the closest I can come is to say the descriptions are alive. Just as Death is anthropomorphised in the Terry Pratchett novels, so is everything in The Dream Thieves. It seems appropriate, in a novel where the trees speak Latin and half the characters are psychics, that you can have an “ardently yellow” polo shirt or a “desolate” washing line (pp 7 and 57 respectively. All references taken from the paperback version, UK, 2013.)

Some of the language reminds me of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was known for stringing words together, like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding | Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (from The Windhover.”). Compare Maggie’s description of one of the characters visiting the family house:

“When Ronan opened the door, the car was immediately filled with the damp-earth, green-walled, mould-stone scent of home.” (p147)

All the senses invoked in one description, without apparent effort. You don’t have to analyse what the character feels, smells, sees, because it’s all there.

For the first time I wish I’d read the book in e-form, as I’m struggling to locate some of my favourite phrases. But here are a few (none of which, I hope, give any story away):

“Adam’s hand glided over her bare elbow. The touch was a whisper in a language she didn’t speak very well.” (p9)

“Gansey’s furiously orange-red ancient Camaro.” (p21)

“Blue Sargent was pretty in a way that was physically painful to him. He was attracted to her like a heart attack.” (p60)

“Then the engine expired … The engine ticked like a dying man’s foot.” (p122)

“Declan looked shocked and poisonous. He was always so alarmed by the truth.” (p411)

“The past was something that had happened to another version of himself, a version that could be lit and hurled away.” (p221)

“Cicadas sang madly from the trees. It was so impossibly summer.” (p340)

“She smiled at him. It was a tiny, secretive thing, like a bird peering from branches.” (p360)

“The crowd, drunk and high and gullible and desirous of wonders, screamed their support.” (p432)

“It was deadly like a cancer. Like radiation.” (p434)

It would be disingenuous to write in Maggie Stiefvater’s style. It is so clearly and unequivocally hers. But reading books like this stretch my vocabulary muscles and build up their strength. They encourage me to be braver and self-censor slightly less. Above all, they transport me to a place where words are everything, reminding me of their power. A place where emotions aren’t described as “her heart thumped like a hammer” (there are a lot of thumping hearts in my prose!)

To read is to learn and to learn is to grow. Bring it on.

Revisions and The Raven Boys

My new workstation - the kids' homework desk!

My new workstation – the kids’ homework desk!

I finally managed to get back to some work today, having packed my almost-better children off to school and nursery. I felt guilty about it, because they probably should have been at home, but I needed the space and silence and absence of sick to start feeling human again.

It felt good to work on my manuscript for the first time in ten days, even though I failed at the numbers game. That’s the thing with revision: you write and write and cut and edit and, at the end of several hours, you have 200 words fewer than you started with.

It’s disheartening.

I’m editing and expanding with this novel, so there are still thousands of words to write to fill the gaps. It’s not uncommon for me. When I write my first drafts I tend to write the highlights; something like an extended synopsis. I write for the romantic ending, the big scenes, the turning points. Then, fifty thousand words later, I look through what I have written and think what?! How did I get from there to there? How did she go from hating to loving him? Why have I given all the secrets away in the first chapter? How much backstory? Then I have to go through and unpick the mess. Fill in the motivations, flesh out the hundred-word paragraphs that really should be two-thousand word chapters. It’s tiresome work, because I write to discover the ending. Once I’ve reached the end, I’m not that interested in filling in the spaces.

I read that way, too. I usually have to read a book twice because, the first time through, (if the book’s any good at story pace or suspense) I skim-read whole chapters to get to the essence, the plot point, the drama. I miss all the great language, the unfolding of characters and personalities, the subplots, the themes. I devour the book, barely tasting it, and then have to go back through and vacuum up the crumbs.

Revision leaves me feeling like this

Revision leaves me feeling like this

I’m reading the sequel to The Raven Boys – The Dream Thieves – at the moment (despite my rant about the abrupt and unsatisfying ending of the first one) and I’m utterly hooked. Now that I know it’s a four-parter, I’m not worrying too much about story resolution (although I’m still skimming ahead for the drama, of which there is plenty). I feel that I’m reading the book in a language other than my native tongue, as if it’s in Old English or something, because the writing is dense and complex and poetically beautiful, but for some reason that’s okay.

But it hasn’t helped my revision. Because, when I put the book down and reluctantly get back to work, I read through my oh-so-obvious story line, with my two-dimensional, unintriguing characters, and I want to chuck the lot in the bin. My Alex and Rebecca are pale imitations (not imitations, because I wrote them before I read Maggie Stiefvater, but you know what I mean), pale shadows of Gansey and Ronan, Adam and Blue. And I want them to shine and live, like Maggie’s characters do. It’s exhausting.

No one says writing a novel is easy. Actually, writing it is the easy part. Making it make sense, making it shine: that’s the impossible task. Reading the words of a master is at once both inspiring and crushing. Never mind. I shall slog on, ignoring the expert sprinting past to the finish, and climb my own climb, one step at a time. It’s worked before. I have faith. I’ll see you at the summit!

Not Cool, Maggie…

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Speechless, I am utterly speechless. After a week of living on my nerves, pouring adrenalin into my reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, of dealing with the dreams and the nightmares and stealing moments to read when I should be parenting or sleeping, I snuck upstairs to read the last chapter this afternoon and WTF?

I have no words.

The damn book just stops. It’s like there are four chapters missing. No explanation, no nothing. Even the tagline “If you kiss your true love, he will die” isn’t remotely or vaguely explained. What a crock of poo.

I’ve never been so distressed at the end of the book. It took me so long to get into the story, to get around the complicated viewpoints, the multiple lead protagonists, the magic and the history and the different cultures. The writing is deep and opaque and quotable and the characters so real I feel like they’re following me around. I couldn’t guess the ending and that excited me. I didn’t know how it was going to resolve itself, how the tagline would be answered, but I knew it would be good.

And then it just ended. Nothing. The last time I felt remotely this bad was at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, although at least there was some resolution before it went straight into the next drama. At least I knew there was a sequel, when I read Patrick Ness’s book. With The Raven Boys there is nothing on my copy to indicate that it is part of a series, so my expectation was for a resolution.

The sequel

The sequel

As my ire cools, I have managed to discover that there is a sequel. The Dream Thieves was thankfully released in September last year, so I can try and get hold of a copy this week. Except I probably won’t. Because, here’s the thing, if the first book in a series doesn’t have some sort of cathartic resolution, I don’t have the energy to read the sequel straightaway.

I will probably never read The Ask and the Answer – the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go. I was too exhausted from the first book to read the second one immediately, and knowing that the story follows on continuously I would have to re-read the first book before reading the second to remind myself of the story. And I don’t have the energy to do that.

It may be the same with The Raven Boys. Except I liked Blue and Adam and Gansey, Ronan and Noah far too much to abandon them. I’m not even bothered about resolving the tagline anymore, I just want to hang out with them some more. Only the next book is about my least favourite character, Ronan, and as a result I’m not drawn in as I would have been if it had been someone else.

So, Maggie, you might be forgiven, because your writing is just awesome. I feel like I can learn so much from you about characterisation, setting, story, plot, mood and use of language. But maybe not how to write a satisfying ending.

Because ending a story without resolving the tagline? Not cool.

Start as You Mean to Go On

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

There’s nothing like starting the year as you mean to go on! Publishing a book on Amazon on day four of the year, even if it is one I wrote last year, and one that probably should be proofread first, feels good. You can find it here: Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey.

I have added the disclaimers and hopefully no one will buy it and trash me for finding the odd inconsistency or typo (of which I’m sure there are plenty). I am fixing the typos as they’re discovered (thank you hubbie, and anyone else letting me know about them) but a writing challenge is a writing challenge: I didn’t set out to write a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013, just a novel that people might enjoy reading. Which, from the reviews I’ve had, it seems they did.

My only dilemma now is whether to take down the first volume from Amazon. It gets the occasional sale, but when you search for ‘Two-Hundred Steps Home’ it presents both books as versions of the same work, even though they have different ASIN numbers. Ah well. A small dilemma.

I’m also enjoying my new resolution to read more, both books and blogs, and write more comments (although I’m not sure I’m keeping up with that target quite as I should. I still feel jetlagged from holiday, illness and Claire!)

I’m reading The Radleys by Matt Haig at present and really enjoying it. I won’t divulge anything about the story, as I’ll write a review post when I’ve finished it. What I am enjoying is how Matt Haig breaks the rules in his writing: there is plenty of head-hopping and change of perspective. I think there’s even a change from writing in the past to the present tense, but I’m trying not to analyse, just get swept up in the story. It might be hard to write a review without spoilers, which I hate, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe read some reviews on other blogs and see how it’s done. What’s your view on reviews? Spoilers or no spoilers? Where do you draw the line?

Why Reading and Parenting don’t mix: 2013 365 Challenge #289

David Eddings' Belgariad

David Eddings’ Belgariad

I was scanning through some of my old blog posts for inspiration today, and I came across one from July last year discussing how much I missed reading adult books and listening to proper songs while raising my young children. (I mostly read children’s stories and listen to their music in the car.)

Much as I love books like Where the Wild Things Are and songs like She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain, there’s only so much you can take.

My post discussed the main reasons why reading had become a rare event, with a one year old and a three year old to care for. What’s frightening is that most of the reasons are still applicable, even now the children are three and four.

These were the reasons:

  • I tend to zone out the world entirely when I’m reading a good book; something that, until recently, hasn’t been vaguely possible. My son especially requires constant vigilance to ensure his continued good health (not because he suffers from any kind of illness, but because he likes to throw himself off high things). This is still true but because now I worry he’s digging up the garden or feeding his lunch to the dog.
  • Kids (and husbands) have an in-built sensor that alerts them when you’ve got to a good bit. Husbands you can just about tell to feck off, but it’s only on really bad days that I say that to the children. Still true, though the likelihood of me telling the kids to “Please go away, Mummy’s reading,” is much greater than it used to be.
  • Even after they’ve gone to bed, assuming I can keep my eyes open to read, the little one wakes every couple of hours, and on the rare occasion I’ve read past midnight, he’s guaranteed to be up and screaming from 1am until 5am. I had one awful night during my consumption of Hunger Games when I didn’t actually get any sleep. Not the best way to get through the following day without going to Mummy Hell in a handcart. Still true: the children don’t wake as often, but they do take it in turns through the night. I also go to bed later because of the daily blog. I’ve still been caught out reading or working until 1am and then not getting any sleep after that.
  • Then there has been what to read. I get paranoid that reading books of the same genre as the one I’m writing might lead to me inadvertently copying a character or piece of plot. This is still true, although my choice of books is more limited by my tiredness and short attention span, as I can’t imagine reading anything quite like Two Hundred Steps Home!

Recently I have ignored all these factors and got stuck into rereading the Belgariad series by David Eddings. I’m on book four already. They’re an easy read and, because I’ve read them before, I am able to put them down (just about) when the children need me. I suspect the daily blog has suffered – certainly my self-imposed 10am deadline has fallen by the wayside, but I needed the break. And being a perfectionist is over-rated!

Best of all, because they’re in paperback format, I don’t have to wait until the children have finished with the iPad. And the children see that I’m reading, not working or surfing the net, as they might imagine when they see me with the tablet in my hand. They say one of the best way to raise readers is to let them see you read. Well, after this week, my kids are going to be moving into a library when they’re older! 🙂

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire’s head pounded in time with the noise of the train: chugga thud, chugga thud.

Digging her thumbs into her temples, she tried to massage the pain away, but the contact only gave it somewhere to focus. It felt like someone had slotted a clamp either side of her skull and was now cranking the handle.

Gritting her teeth against the discomfort, Claire focussed on the tiny screen, cursing each time the train’s lurching motion causing her to press a wrong key.

How do people use their phones for anything other than making calls? My fingers must just be too big.

Claire carefully tapped the screen above the tiny black arrow and prayed the website would give her the right page.

I miss my iPad.

She dwelt on why she’d had to sell it.

I miss money too.

The thought wandered around her mind like a lost puppy, while she waited for the page to appear. It wasn’t money, exactly, that she missed. She’d never had any before, not really. Her extravagant lifestyle in Manchester had been funded mostly by credit. Despite the large salary, she’d always seemed several months’ pay in arrears. But, so long as the money was coming, it felt like hers and that was enough.

Now, for the first time, she was experiencing life without the expectation of that monthly sum, and it was an uncomfortable place to be. Even with knowing that she was working finally, and money was on its way, she knew she was at least a month’s salary in arrears, with the bills she had run up in New Zealand.

How do people live without credit? How do they pay the bills, or eat? Never mind run a car.

The webpage slowly revealed itself, one picture at a time, like some kind of digital striptease. The wait stretched endlessly but, when all the text and images were visible, the story was still the same. Hiring a car to travel around the south west was way beyond her budget.

Who knew I would ever miss my little Skoda.

With careful precision, Claire opened a new search window and tapped out “Skoda” with the tip of her index nail. The page, when it appeared, was not what she was expecting.

They still make them? That looks more like a Volkswagen. I can’t afford that.

Without really knowing why, she changed the search term to “Second hand car” then added “Exeter”. A few painstaking clicks later and she was looking at a list of second hand cars that were the same price as hiring one for a few weeks.

Her heart thudded beneath her ribs and her throat ached for a cup of tea. The throbbing in her temples increased as she scanned the list of cars. Age, mileage, alloy wheels, five speed, four speed, petrol, diesel. The words seemed important but they might as well have been in Icelandic for all the sense they made to her.

With an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, Claire realised she’d never actually bought a car before; her university runabout had been provided by her parents and, after that, her wheels had always belonged to the company. Even the Skoda.

Dropping her phone into her lap, Claire let her head fall back against the grimy seat. Staring at her own reflection in the window, her mind chewed on the growing sense of failure. Her image looked pale and haggard and her whole body ached.

How pathetic. I’ve been driving for ten years and I’ve never bought a car. I’ve never bought a house or had a mortgage. What do I know of the real world? I’ve lived in my stupid little bubble and been so proud of myself for being a success. What bollocks.

A tiny voice suggested she call Conor and ask him to source a car for her. She immediately quashed it. She did not want to owe Conor any more favours. A mental image of his eyes glittering with pleasure at her helplessness made her shudder.

With a sigh, Claire picked up the phone and staggered down the moving carriage to the corridor. In the end there was only one person a girl could call.

As the phone connected, Claire leant back against the wall and swallowed down tears.

“Dad? Hi, I’m glad you answered. … What? It’s Claire. Claire. … Yes, I’m okay, how are you? How’s the book coming along? … Great, that’s great. Look, I need a favour. … No, it’s not that. I need some advice. … Dad, how the hell do I buy a car?”

***