Tag Archives: literature

Literature vs Genre Fiction

I’m currently enrolled in a Fiction Writing Workshop class at Rowan University. Since this is a graduate-level class, the intent is that we will learn things that go beyond just plot and characterization and show, don’t tell. The professor described it as a more in-depth course where we will be refining our writing on multiple levels and in as much detail as possible.

One of the issues that was raised on the first day is “What is the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction?” The answers varied, but in the discussion that followed we basically defined Genre Fiction (whether it be fantasy, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc) as books that are designed just to tell a story. They have a plot with a beginning and an end, and they are written for the purpose of selling books. Many authors who write a sci fi adventure book probably don’t say that they’re trying to send some epic message about the human experience. They may just enjoy those types of stories and think that they have a good story to tell.

Literature, on the other hand, was defined as writing that has some deeper meaning or message that goes beyond the story. It tells us something about life, and resonates in a way that will carry with the reader long after the experience.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have Sci Fi Literature. If you picture it as a Venn Diagram, you’d have some overlap between various genres and works of literature. Some stories, however, are just stories.

To give a basic run down, I’ll go over some of the books I’ve read so far this year. One was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is definitely Literature. The story wasn’t just a story about animals taking over the farm. Instead, it was a political commentary about how power can corrupt and governments can take advantage of the people.

Then I read Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, about the war taking place in Wonderland where Alice has to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (in a darker and more action-oriented tale than the original Alice in Wonderland, in a similar vein as the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film). This book didn’t seem to have any important political message; the war in the book was simply the Queen of Hearts grabbing power and ruling the land with an iron fist. You don’t really need to dig much deeper than that to understand the conflict.

Some books, as I mentioned above, can fall into both categories. For example, while there might be some individual dispute on this, I’d consider the Hunger Games Trilogy to be both literature and sci fi/action-adventure. On the surface, the first book is a story about teenagers being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the evil Capitol that rules over the various districts. However, there can be parallels made to many social issues: youth violence (such as school shootings), poverty, the misbalance between starving third world countries and lavish capitalist societies, and the way media will depict any kind of tragedy or violence on the air just to get higher ratings. The fact that these events are taking place in a futuristic high-tech society that has force fields and such is just a matter of setting.

The questions raised in my graduate class, about the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction, has made me have to sit down and consider my writing in a new way. I don’t have any aspirations to be considered a literary writer or have my work have some deeper meaning (though if I sat down to analyze my work from a neutral perspective, I could definitely list a variety of ways that Manifestation and Contamination are critiques on how our society reacts to acts of terrorism, and the way blame is passed to people who aren’t responsible for the attacks just because society views everyone of certain “groups” as being equally to blame). I sat down to write an urban fantasy story, and if people later decide to consider it literature, then hey, bonus.

However, even though I don’t consider myself a literary writer, this class will require me to produce works of literary fiction. I still plan to make it urban fantasy literature, but I need to think more deeply about my approach. My goal with the class is to work on more short stories to go alongside Radiance, Belladonna, and the other shorts I’m working on for release along with the rest of the series. I may end up writing several new short stories, or one long one (since the class is open to either possibility). But for the new stories I work on to count as “literature,” I need to make sure there is a deeper meaning.

Is there a deeper message in Radiance? I would say yes. On the surface level, it’s a story about a girl gaining a magical power. Yet on a deeper level, it’s about faith and belief (which are themes that run though all of my writing, since belief is a very powerful force in the Arcana Revived world). So I’m considering how to look at the types of themes and deeper messages I tend to work with, in order to consider how to focus more on those things in whatever I’m about to write this semester. I haven’t yet decided how to go about this, but the ideas of belief and faith are a good starting point. I think I can say a lot about the power of belief and the way your personal perspective can change reality around you.

On one level, these are concepts I’m familiar with from my Communication Studies education; there’s a principle called Symbolic Interactionism that explains how our understanding of reality is changed by communication. This is a subtle effect, but can have a real impact. A small example would be if your parents treat you like you’re stupid, and you end up unmotivated in school, resulting in low grades, thus proving your parents right. Yet if they encourage you and tell you that you can succeed, you’ll try harder, get better grades, and prove them right. Your success or failure in such a situation can be determined by what kind of communication takes place.

On another level, this idea can be applied to fantasy works when considering the effect magic can have on you. The way characters like Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez communicate about magic in their world has a very real impact on how it functions. I don’t want to go into more detail because of spoilers, but it is something you can see in Radiance if you pay close attention to Maria’s thought process during the story and watch the nonverbal communication between her and the other minor characters in the book. There are some deliberate moments where people’s reactions reflect their beliefs in a way that causes literal changes in the world. It’s Symbolic Interactionism meets Magic and Mystery.

So in order to write literary works in this class, I think I’m going to take these concepts and focus on them more than I have in the past. Hopefully the results will be something my classmates say has a deeper message or says something about faith, belief, and society.


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Suspense Without Death

I’d like to talk about suspense.

I often hear people complaining about certain TV shows, movies, books, and comics by saying that there is “no suspense” because “the main characters can’t die.” This can apply to anything from a TV show like “24” (where everyone knew that Jack Bauer had to live or else the series would end), a book series like Harry Potter where the books are named after Harry so of course he has to live, or to a webcomic like The Order of the Stick, where people always complain in the website’s forums about there being no danger to the main cast because they have “plot armor” (as in, their lives are protected because they’re needed for the plot).

I touched on this subject before in a series I wrote about how to use magic in your writing (You can find that series in three posts: The first post discusses 1. How to make your magic unique and 2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense, the second post discusses  3. How to break your own rules (and do it right) and 4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic, and the third post discusses 5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”) and 6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000).  Specifically, “The Superman Dilemma” is an idea that a character’s powers can be so strong that there is no suspense, such as because Superman is rarely in danger and you KNOW Superman won’t die because he’s Superman. The way I discussed getting around this dilemma is by putting the suspense not in whether Superman lives or dies, but instead in whether he succeeds or fails.

So summarize the concept I went over in the post about “The Superman Dilemma,” it basically goes like this: suspense doesn’t just come in whether Superman will die. It comes in whether everyone ELSE will die. Can Superman save them all in time, or will he fail? In a scenario like this, the suspense comes not only from the loss of other lives, but also from the emotional strain Superman faces when he realizes he wasn’t strong enough to save everyone. Similar turmoils occur frequently in other shows and books as well. A good example is Doctor Who. Everyone KNOWS the Doctor can’t die, because if he does, he just regenerates. But the suspense comes in wondering whether he can save everyone else, and we see his pain and his turmoil every time he fails someone who was counting on him.

Now, the original post I wrote about this dilemma was focused on the magic angle of suspense; specifically, the way you use these ideas to create suspense when you have a character with extreme powers and abilities (whether they be Superman’s superhero powers or the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning). However, this concept can be taken to a different level. What about if you have a character with NO powers?

I’m currently reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t yet seen the movies and I plan on finishing the books before I do so. (Spoilers to follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want me giving away the plot of the book). Now, The Hunger Games has no real magic in it (though the Gamemakers technological ability to do things like summon a giant wall of fire could almost be magic from a literary perspective). The main character, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive the games through nothing but her skills, cunning, and perseverance. Of course, I know she CAN’T die in the first book, because a) there’s two more books and b) I’ve seen previews for the second movie, Catching Fire that show her as the victor. Does this take away the suspense?

No. And here’s why.

Katniss isn’t a superhero, so she’s not expected to save anyone. If she does save one of the other Tributes, she does so because she is pure of heart, not because she’s there to save them. So the idea of “failing to save people” (as with Superman) doesn’t really apply to her. We expect her to have to kill the others. So if we remove BOTH the suspense of her dying (since she can’t) and the suspense of her failing to save others (since she isn’t expected to do so), then what suspense is there?

The suspense of her maintaining her humanity.

I’m about halfway through the book. I just read a scene where Katniss and the younger girl, Rue, are both hiding in the trees, trying to escape the other Tributes. Rue warns Katniss about a hive of genetically engineered wasps, and in exchange, Katniss warns Rue to escape before she unleashes the wasps on the other Tributes down on the ground. Two Tributes die because of Katniss’s actions, but we see this as a victory, because they were trying to kill Katniss first. She wins and defeats her enemies.

However, there are two Tributes so far that are NOT Katniss’s enemies: Rue and Peeta. Peeta is in love with Katniss and saves her life, not only refusing to attack her when he has the chance but warning her when others are coming. So by this point in the book, both Rue and Peeta have proven themselves to be friends and potential allies for Katniss. She won’t want to kill them, even if she’ll willingly kill any of the other Tributes.

This creates suspense, because even knowing Katniss has to live, the reader wonders, Will she have to kill her friends? I don’t want Katniss to have to kill Rue. I like Rue, and I want her to live. But even if she dies, there is suspense because I don’t want Katniss to be the one who kills her. Maybe Rue will be killed by another Tribute. Maybe she will die of the dangers around her in the wilderness. Maybe she will heroically sacrifice herself to save Katniss. I don’t know what will happen, but not knowing creates suspense. More than anything, I don’t want to see Katniss suffer the pain of murdering someone she sees as a friend. That pain, the pain Katniss would feel over having to kill someone she doesn’t want to kill, would be worse than Superman’s pain when he fails to save a life.

So you see, there can be suspense in many forms. Sometimes it’s not a question of “Will the main character die?” Sometimes, it’s a question of “What will the main character have to do to survive?” She might lose something deeper, some part of her good nature. And if she turns into a murderer to save herself, isn’t that a bigger defeat than seeing her die?

How to Write a Sex Scene

I was uncertain what to write about today, so as is my wont, I went to Twitter. One of the Megans I follow (Twitter is a breeding ground for Megans) suggested “How to Write a Sex Scene Using Goats as a Metaphor.”

Blame her. This whole post is her fault.
Blame her. This whole post is her fault.

She failed to clarify whether she meant “How to Write a Sex Scene That Uses Goats as a Metaphor (for sex)” or “Use Goats as a Metaphor for ‘How To Write a Sex Scene.'” I’m choosing to interpret it as the latter; that is to say, goats will be my metaphor for how to write, not for sex. Though I expect there will be some gray areas.

So how do you write a sex scene? It’s an area many writers find uncomfortable. I’m going to speak frankly, however, so if the previous paragraph about you goats and sex didn’t scare you off, be warned that adult content is coming (pun intended).

First, allow me to precursor this by saying I’m not an erotica writer. I have written my fair share of smut, however, which can be found on certain corners of the internet if you know where to look. I’ll be sharing a sample of it below, so if you’re not shy, you can read it and judge for yourself whether I write it well enough to be giving advice on the subject.

The first thing I’ll suggest is the same thing every experienced writer will tell you about writing anything: you need to read a lot. You have to write what you know, and in the case of sex scenes, “what you know” doesn’t necessarily have to be based on your own real life experiences. It can be based on what you’ve read. By reading more erotica, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and that’s the best way to learn how to write it yourself. I also suggest reading a wide variety, both the good and the bad. Read sex scenes like a goat in a junkyard: don’t discriminate, and chew on everything you can find. Sure, you might chip a tooth on a dull piece of tin or some tough rubber, but you’ll learn something in the process. After all, what better way to learn what NOT to do in your writing, than to read some bad erotica and learn from its mistakes (I’m looking at you, 50 shades of Grey)?

I’ve read more than my fair share, and based on what I’ve read, I’m going to lay out a few general categories:

1. The Ram – These smut stories rush right into the dirty parts without any style or grace. The result is usually poor writing, and is likely to be more pornography than erotica. The difference between porn and erotica is that one is art, and the other you just jack off to. Compare, for example, (NSFW) this versus this. One is artistic, meant to provoke emotion. The other is for milking your goat cheese. One of the key differences is good taste, but there’s more to it than that. I’ll explain in more detail about the “good taste” side, but what you should realize about the Ram is that its focus is just on the physical and the instant gratification.

I’d like to analyze these two photos from a purely artistic perspective. The first one, despite not being particularly crude as nudes go, is still a provocative pose. It’s designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the obvious female body parts. The model’s pose is simultaneously submissive and seductive, and from the spread legs, the arching of the back, and the expression on the face, it’s easy to imagine this model in a sexual context. I could probably find plenty of even more sexual examples on Google. Is this photo artistic? Yes. It’s clearly professionally done, and not just some snapshot someone took of their girlfriend. But it’s also clearly a shot designed to entice men in the way all porn does (and if you have any doubt, you can check the other NSFW shots from the same website, which get even more sexual).

Now, let’s consider the second photo. I found it among several others in a set that all strike me as being much more artistic. In these, the model isn’t the sole central focus of the shot. The backgrounds and lighting are as important in these shots as the model, whereas in the previous shot, the background was plain, non-distracting white. The model on the first image is even on a white table; this is clearly a deliberate choice to make sure nothing distracts you from the nude girl.

Take another look, and think about where your eye first enters the photos. Look at this one compared to this one. Where is your eye drawn? In the first one, the eye is most likely immediately drawn right to the breasts, and then down to the crotch. This isn’t accidental; the model’s pose creates a line of motion that draws the eye in that direction. Even the angles of the first model’s legs are all designed to be lines leading to a central point, the point the viewer is presumed to be interested in. (For a wonderful explanation of how object placement in a photograph can lead the viewer’s eye, I recommend this article). But with the girl in the barn, the eye is drawn first to her face, then along her back towards her feet. Nothing about that shot makes the woman’s breasts a central focus or signifier. Yes, she’s still a beautiful naked girl. But her pose isn’t seductive or sexual.

This is the difference between the Ram, which shoves the sex in your face, and a more artistic approach, where the sensuality is more part of the background. You can use a similar approach in your writing. Focus on the entire image, not just on the naughty bits.

2. The Sheep – The sheep is soft, docile, and easily guided by a firm hand. This is your relationship with a tantalized reader, who waits with wide eyes for you to take them on an erotic journey. Don’t scare them off. An average reader isn’t coming to your book to get rammed, and they (hopefully) keep their pants on the entire time they’re reading your book. Your goal isn’t to get your reader to seek their orgasm. Your goal is to capture their attention and keep them emotionally invested in your story.

In his book, “Stein On Writing,” Sol Stein says that the key to suspense is to give your character a goal, something they desire, then keep them from achieving that goal as long as possible. In erotica, the goal is the culmination of the character’s sexual desires, and the character should be forced to wait as long as possible to get what they want. If the reader is in tune with the character, they will be just as eager as the character to see it finally happen. In the romance novel my friend Carey wrote, the protagonist doesn’t get to taste her “forbidden fruit” until one of the final chapters. The result is a reader who is on edge the entire book, waiting to see if it will happen.

Even within the single sex scene itself, a skillful writer won’t ram right into business. There should be flirtation. There should be foreplay. There should be a LOT of “show, don’t tell” emotions. How long you wait to get to the “good stuff” depends on your writing style. It could be paragraphs, it could be pages. But if you grab the goat by the horns in the second sentence, you’re doing it wrong. Let the emotions and tension build for awhile before the climax (both in the story structure and in the bed).

3. The Pompeii – If you google “erotic goat,” this pops up. Click the link, and read the accompanying article. I assure you, it’s intellectual, not revolting (though it certainly might weird you out).

The reason I shared that article is because it raises an interesting, and I would say important aspect of eroticism in art. Our mythology is filled with examples of eroticism that aren’t limited to humans, and if you’re a sci fi or fantasy writer, this is an area you might find yourself delving into. The important thing to remember in cases like this is that this isn’t bestiality and it isn’t perversion. It’s history and myth. It’s also something you might want to use in your writing, if you do it right.

Piers Anthony is a fantasy writer who delves into this sort of thing, and does it in good taste. In his world, “Xanth,” there exist magic love springs that enchant any creatures that drink from them. After taking a drink, creatures are compelled to mate with the next creature they meet, and the magic ensures that the coupling can and will result in a child. Different species accidentally stumbling across love springs is how the world came to have species like centaurs (half human, half horse), harpies (half human, half vulture), and satyrs (half human, half goat). Though Piers Anthony never shows us a human and a goat mating in erotic detail, the results of the mating are there.

If you’re a fantasy writer, you may want to write human/dragon mating, or something similar. You can play it for laughs, the way Piers Anthony does, or you can address it with seriousness. Consider more than the physical questions of “will it fit?” Think about the cross-cultural differences between the two species. Think about how difficult the mating ritual might be between a mammal and an egg-laying reptile. Think about whether a dragon would have the human emotions associated with “making love,” or if they would view the act differently. Fantasy writer Elizabeth Haydon depicted a dragon in her novel, “Rhapsody,” as viewing his mate as a shiny piece of treasure to be guarded as part of his hoard.

All of these elements and more can become important parts of your story. They can be used to build up to the eventual sex scene, which instead of just being two people bumping uglies, will instead be a triumph over cross-species cultural barriers and all of the conflict that comes with them.

4. The Domestic Goat, Capra aegagrus hircus – Goats can be domesticated, like cattle, and kept as pets or livestock. This is like functional, bland sex; you might milk the goat every day, but that doesn’t mean the goat enjoys it. If a reader feels like reading your sex scenes is a chore, you might be better off skipping the milking and going straight to the breakfast table. There’s nothing wrong with the “fade to black, cut” method of writing sex scenes. It’s probably the kind I use the most often. Does your story need the sex, or are you just putting it there because sex sells? I only write a full erotic scene if there are strong emotions involved, and I’m trying to show the characters reaching a new level of their relationship or achieving an emotional bond. If it’s not important to the story, then you’re just going through the motions of the daily chore.

All of the above examples talk about the purpose of sex in a story, and how to sculpt a scene. “But Jason,” you ask, “when do we get to the naughty fun parts?” Well, as I said earlier, you need to tease your audience and make them wait to build suspense. But I suppose I can’t write a “How To Write a Sex Scene” post without discussing the language itself.

First, I’m going to share some examples of different ways to write descriptions in a sex scene. One will be an example of my own work. I don’t by any means think my own work serves as the highest artistic examples of erotic writing, but I do believe it’s appropriate that if I’m going to write about sex, I should have the courage to share my own writing.

Once again, everything that follows is NSFW.

First, let’s look at an example of bad writing; The Ram, in full force. Here is a short excerpt of a story on Literotica.com:

“I have driven to meet you at your house. After chatting online for awhile we were anxious to meet each other. It’s a hot summer’s day, so I told you to be in shorts, no boxers. It is a long drive but finally I arrive and knock on the door. You open it only to be pushed back inside by me. Seeing as you want an aggressive girl, there is no time for small talk.

The door slams shut and I drop to my knees right there at the door. You are not expecting to get moving so quickly. I look up to see a mixture of amazement and curiosity on your face as I start to unzip your shorts.

You open your mouth but I don’t give you time to say anything. I shove your soft cock into my mouth. I suck and lick it, making it grow and come to life in my mouth. Finally it is fully erect, gagging me as it touches the back of my throat.”

Now, I’d like to analyze this story, not as a work of porn, but the way I’d critique any piece of writing. Let’s review it from a professional angle. We open with no introduction to who these characters are, just that they have been “chatting online.” There is no description of their appearance, their occupations, or anything. The action starts in the first paragraph with the “aggressive girl” pushing her way in; this story tells us from the start what we should expect from it. Then, second paragraph, the girl is already on her knees. By the third paragraph, we have some extremely graphic language and a scene straight out of a cheap porno.

If this sort of scene appeared in a novel, would you keep reading? I wouldn’t. There’s no emotion. There’s no reason to care who these characters are. This story is about fucking, plain and simple. The entire story is 768 words, and there isn’t a single paragraph in it that isn’t about the raw, physical act of sex.

Now, if you want to write porn, you could use this style. But I think most of the people reading my blog want to write books and stories. That’s certainly what I want. So, how do you write a sensual, erotic scene in a novel, without it turning into trash like this?

Let’s take a look at something more emotional. The following excerpt is from my WIP novel, “Manifestation.” It contains minor spoilers from the novel, so be warned:

            “Hours later, Tock awoke in Frankie’s bed. She glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand, and realized it was four in the morning. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep there, but after a rather energetic night of fun and experimentation, she had passed out in Frankie’s arms. Part of her wanted to get up and go back to her room, but his arms felt quite nice around her. Something else also felt quite nice pressed up against her from behind, filling her with an urge that she couldn’t deny. She lay there for awhile and contemplated the most sensible thing to do. She knew that leaving, and letting the boy wake up alone, would be a better way to get the message through to him what it was really all about. She wasn’t prepared to do the relationship thing; her life was simply too much of a mess.

            She stared at the clock as the digital display ticked away another minute. What would Frankie Palladino think if he knew he was in bed with a murderer? Would that change his tune? She couldn’t ever admit such things to him, of course, but she still needed to make him understand that she wasn’t the ‘girlfriend’ type.

            But then, his body felt so warm and nice pressed up behind her . . .

            I’ll spell it out fer ‘im in the mornin’, she thought. She rolled over to face him and slipped her arms around him, then kissed him urgently. He moaned in his sleep as she pulled him on top of her and his body responded on instinct before he was even fully awake. Her gentle but none-too-subtle hands sought the source of her urges and soon woke him fully. The response she felt under her hand made it clear he was more than ready for another round.

            She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body. Frankie was strong, and his athletic body was warm and firm against hers. He made her moan, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, clinging to him as she let him have his way with her. Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .”

See the difference? First, it’s a little more than twice the length of the clip of the porno story, but you can follow the link to Literotica to read that whole story (all 768 words of it) and you won’t see what you see in my excerpt of “Manifestation.” Let’s analyze it bit by bit.

First, the opening paragraph of the “Manifestation” excerpt sets the scene. This particular scene comes after a short mid-chapter scene break, so what you see above, with Tock waking up, is the “beginning” of this scene, for all intents and purposes. That first paragraph names both characters, and it sets an image of the setting around them: a dark bedroom in the middle of the night, a digital clock counting away the minutes, and the fact that this is Frankie’s room (in the college dorms). These visual details aren’t much, but they’re certainly setting the scene better than “I knock on the door, you open it.”

Now, my first paragraph still sets an erotic tone, as Tock observes the feeling of Frankie pressed up behind her. I never name a body part, but you know which part is pressing against her. It’s subtle (more so, at least, than the other story). But it sets the stage for what comes next. More importantly, though, there’s emotion here. You can see a sense of conflict. She has doubts, and isn’t sure how to express them. That makes the lovemaking that follows all the more meaningful.

Let’s take a closer look at the actual vocabulary, shall we? Both stories reach a point where the penis enters an orifice, to use the boring technical terms. Let’s compare those specific moments in each story.

The Ram:

“I move down from your face, to your stomach, turning around to face you, so you can see my tits bounce as I press your cock into my ass. I take some of your pre cum and rub it on my tits, sucking the cum off in front of you.”

“Manifestation”:

“She spread her legs for him and pulled him in close, wrapping her arms around him and tracing her fingernails down his back. She gasped as he entered her, and forgot all thoughts of whether they were in a relationship or just fucking. She just became focused on the sensations pulsing through her body.”

I’d like to set aside the crudity of the Ram’s language and focus on the actual imagery and emotions (or lack thereof). In the Ram’s story, we see “bouncing tits,” a “cock,” “pre cum,” and lots of rubbing and sucking. The images are all sexual. The only emotion we see is lust. As for the words themselves, these are all classic “porn words.” People who write stories just for the sake of getting off tend to focus on these kinds of words, thinking that the crudity is what a sex scene is all about.

The “Manifestation” clip, on the other hand, focuses on entirely different body parts and images. “She spread her legs,” “wrapping her arms around him.” We see “her fingernails down his back.” Even when the sex itself starts, it’s not “he shoved his cock into her pussy.” Instead it’s “She gasped as he entered her.” It’s still sensual and erotic, but it’s not crude. The focus isn’t on the physical anatomy. It’s on the emotions.

Compare these two scenes to the earlier photographs. As before, one is focused on breasts and sexual things. The other is focused on emotion and artistry.

That, in my humble opinion, is the key difference between porn and art. Art moves your heart, while porn just moves your genitals.

Focus on the characters. Focus on their emotions. The sex is just the background. The story is more important. As yourself what purpose a sexual scene serves in your story. The “Manifestation” scene above is meant to show Tock’s inner turmoil, the conflict she feels between her desire for Frankie (desire that is both physical and emotional) and her doubts and fears. The closing lines, “Part of her just wished he wouldn’t be so tender and gentle about it . . . that just made the situation all the more complicated . . .” are the real reason that scene exists. If I weren’t trying to show those emotions, I’d have cut straight to the following morning. This scene exists to show the reader that conflict. The fact that Tock’s emotions and confusion are being shown during a sex scene has little to do with the sex, and everything to do with the story.

In closing, I hope you’ve read and appreciated this post in the mature, professional way I’ve tried to approach it. I love me some naughty bits, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place to approach things from a serious angle.

My Journey as a Professional Writer, Part 6: Self-Publishing

It’s been awhile since the last time I wrote a post about my writing career. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The last month of blog posts have mostly been about my Kickstarter campaign, which is very much a part of my writing career. But those posts were focused on the specifics of the campaign itself; this one is about me, what I’ve learned, and where I’m going from here.

Working a Kickstarter campaign had ups and downs. The ups were amazing moments where people I know–or in some cases strangers–pledged their support and made the drive a success (and if you haven’t seen it yet, check out the cover that was made as a result of the drive). There were moments I was fighting tears at seeing how wonderful and generous some people can be.

The downs, however, were there throughout the drive. One issue, which is something most writers I know deal with, is the doubt. There would be days where I wondered whether any more support would come in, and whether I would meet my goals. There would also be days when I would wonder about the scale of establishing a self-publishing career. Once the ebook is out, will it sell? How will I spread the word and market it? Will people be interested in buying an ebook of a short story as a stand-alone tale? These kinds of doubts are similar to any writer’s doubts about whether they will find an agent, whether their book will be picked up by a publisher, and whether they will ever make decent sales on the book they worked so long and hard on.

But here’s what I think about those doubts: everyone has to start somewhere, and I think this short story is a pretty strong start. The readers who’ve critiqued and commented on it so far all had high praise. I think the plot is intriguing, and offers a good glimpse into the world I’m creating for the novel “Manifestation.” And, since the ebook will be selling for just 99 cents, it’s a low-risk venture for customers. I’ve done a lot of research into ebook price trends, and I’ve come to believe this is a good move. When “Manifestation” comes out, the ebook will probably be priced low, since that’s one of the ways self-publishers work to compete with the higher-priced publications from traditional publishers. In addition to a competitively low ebook price for the novel, readers who want to see what my writing is like will be able to read a short story at an even lower price. If they like my writing (and I certainly hope they will), then maybe they’ll buy the novel as well. If they don’t like it, well, it was only 99 cents, right?

I’m also planning on publishing many more short stories in the future. “Radiance” is just the first one. The short stories are part of the reason I decided to go with self-publishing to begin with. Traditional publishers aren’t likely to publish individual short stories by an unknown author. The only way most writers I know of publish short stories is by selling them to magazines, but the vast majority of those magazines focus on “literary” stories, not urban fantasy. Because of this, the number of places I could publish “Radiance” would be very slim, and if I DID manage to get it published in a magazine, it would be a single, flat payment for publication in one issue. After that one printing, it’d likely never be heard from again.

Instead of publishing a story in a single magazine where it appears in one issue then gets buried in the back of a doctor’s office waiting room, I’m publishing it online. It will be available forever (I hope), with more stories to follow in the series. I have more than half a dozen stories already written, so one day there will be a huge collection published in this series. “Arcana Revived” will be comprised of a minimum of three novels and a dozen short stories, and probably a lot more than that, as I add to it over the years.

This is one of the ways I feel I can overcome the writer’s doubt. This project may only be my first, small start, but I have a business plan. One I’ve researched extensively, with plans for marketing, advertising, and branding. I think that’s going to be the difference between good versus bad self-publishing. Self-pub gets a bad rep a lot of the time, because frankly, the self-publishing world is filled with as many crappy ebooks as there are crappy videos on YouTube. Every once in awhile, however, you see a YouTube video with millions of hits, and a self-published author who winds up on the New York Times bestseller list. The difference between the unknown author and the successful one, in my opinion, is based on how hard you work and how much you learn about the industry. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m working to learn it. I’m not just throwing an ebook out there and waiting for a magic fairy to sprinkle pixie dust on it to make it sell. This is my job. I clock in every day and work hard to make sure it will succeed.

Kickstarter Update #3: Developing Strong Characters

You can also read this update on Kickstarter.

Characters are the backbone of any good story. Most writers I know will tell you that a good character makes the story practically write itself; the story lives and thrives on the character’s actions, decisions, and troubles. Developing a strong character is probably one of the most important steps in any piece of writing. You can have an interesting plot, be it a war, a mystery, or a global disaster, and lose the interest of your readers if they don’t care about the people who are involved in the fighting, who are solving the mystery, or who are surviving after the disaster.

I’ve come to believe that it helps a great deal to develop the character in advance, before the story begins. That’s how it happened with my series. The two main protagonists, Gabby and Tock, were originally written in dozens of short stories long before I began work on “Manifestation.” When I started the novel, it was like “rebooting” them; I started their lives over from the beginning, with an idea of where I would take these characters and how they would develop along the way. It made a big difference, since I already knew how they would react to certain events in their lives, and it was just a matter of getting the new story developed until those events occurred.

Interesting characters are a big part of the reason I’m also developing this series to include a number of short stories. “Radiance” is, on one level, about magic returning to the world. On a deeper level, however, it’s about exploring the character of Maria, the story’s protagonist. While a short story can only delve so much into the life of a character, there were many ways in which Maria’s character directly influenced the story’s outcome. The decision she makes at the end of the story shows what she values most in life, and she uses her new-found magic to protect that which she values.

I won’t say more about Maria’s life and decisions since I don’t want to spoil the story. The point, however, is that her emotions and her decisions as a character are what makes “Radiance” the story that it is. I’m planning on having Maria return in later parts of the series, and it makes a big difference knowing what her history and her motivations are. From that perspective, “Radiance” is somewhat like a prologue or origin story, showing us where Maria comes from and what set her on her path. This is also why I have so many other short stories planned. There are a lot more characters in the “Arcana Revived” series than just Gabby and Tock; those two just steal the spotlight since they’re the main characters of the novels. Some of the short stories I’m planning are based on characters that are minor parts of the novels, but have deep enough backgrounds to deserve their own chance to shine. Giving each one their own short story on the side gives the reader a glimpse into that character’s life in a way the novels can’t.

Hopefully this project, getting “Radiance” self-published, will be just the first of many projects that let me share the lives of these characters with everyone who wants to read about them.

Magic: Making the Rules, and How to Break Them

 

My novel is an urban fantasy story, set in a world where magic exists and is a major part of the plot. We’ve all read a lot of stories with magic in them, from Lord of the Rings, to Alice in Wonderland, to Harry Potter. Magic can be mysterious (we never know just how Gandalf does what he does). It can be silly (eating a cake that makes you grow 50 feet tall). It can be structured (half of the Harry Potter novels involve teaching us “how magic works”). How does a writer decide how to make their magic different? How do you make it believable? How do you make it capture the reader’s imagination?

 

I’ve studied a lot of techniques, and developed a few theories of my own. This post (and others to follow) will touch on several different points that I’ve learned are very important to writing good magic:

1. How to make your magic unique
2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense
3. How to break your own rules (and do it right)
4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic
5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”)
6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000)

I’ll provide examples from a variety of genres (fantasy, urban fantasy, fairy tales, and even sci fi) to help show how these techniques can apply across a wide variety of stories.

1. How to make your magic unique

Magic has been done. From the oldest Greek mythology to the newest modern movies, magic has existed in fiction in so many forms that it’s hard to write anything completely “new.” So how do you make your magic stand out as something unique and original?

In his book, “Stein on Writing,” Sol Stein makes a suggestion for how to make characters more memorable. He calls it “using markers.” A marker is some unique trait that makes a character stand out. It can be Gandalf’s pointed hat, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Igor’s hunch, or Dirty Harry’s big ass gun. You always remember a certain trait about a character, and markers are a good tool to use to make your characters memorable even if they’re not 100% unique (because NOTHING is).

Magic can also have markers. When you think of magic in certain books or movies, there are unique traits that come to mind, even if the magic ITSELF isn’t completely new and original. You’ll always remember Gandalf’s staff, Harry’s wand, or Cyclops’s ruby visor. While any individual magic effect might be something a reader has seen before, the WAY it is done can still be unique.

Consider Harry Potter. 90% of the magic seen in those books and movies has been done before, many many times. We see levitating objects, flight, teleportation, stunning/paralysis, transformation, and divination. Any level 10 wizard in “Dungeons and Dragons” can do everything Harry can, and more. About the only really unique spell is the Patronus.

And yet, Harry Potter’s magic is still somehow very original. How? By use of markers. Wizards have to have a wand or they can’t use magic (a rule NOT seen in many other wizard stories). Each spell has a unique name that you always remember. An instant death spell isn’t D&D’s “Slay Living.” It’s Avada Kedavra. Making an object float isn’t “Levitate.” It’s Wingardium Leviosa. The Wicked Witch of the West (whose name is a marker in itself) just flew on any old broomstick, but Harry flies on a Nimbus 2000.

Adding traits like these to your story can make your magic feel unique and original, even if some parts of it have been done before. Guess what? EVERYTHING has been done before. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it in a different way.

One of my markers is light. My characters use and see magic in the world around them, but they never see someone waving a wand or chanting magic words. Instead they see pure, radiant light emanate from someone’s hands before a ball of fire flies out. Light radiates from one character and touches another, sparking change as the energy infuses into them. There is a line in the book referring to a character as “like the sun” because of the light radiating from her. These markers, along with others, should make my characters, and their magic, seem unique.

So in order to make your magic unique, consider what markers you can use that are different from the norm. What does a character have to do to make the magic work? What does the magic look like? How do people react to it? Is each magic unique to each person (like individual powers in the X-men) or can people learn to duplicate each other’s magic (like going to Wizard School in Harry Potter)? Each of these questions can be used to take an otherwise familiar type of magic and add a unique spin to it.

2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense

Magic has rules. It’s like science. After all, any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science. The rules of your magic will be what helps the reader to understand it, and help make sure it’s believable.

The rules can be simple or complex. In a fairy tale, “true love’s kiss will break the spell” is a simple, common rule (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Shrek). “You can’t cast magic without a wand” is another simple rule.

Some stories have more elaborate rules. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series has very complex rules. Magic is divided into different elements. There are rules for how someone can draw on a magic power, how to block others, and even differences between how men and women use magic. There are various limitations imposed on what can or cannot be done, and ways to bypass those limitations. In addition, there are advancements made throughout the series where people figure out how to do things that have never been done before.

Another good example is “The Matrix.” While it’s a sci fi movie, the characters do things that are essentially like magic. Morpheus explains the rules throughout the early parts of the movie, such as how “That’s not air you’re breathing” (to remind Neo that they’re in a computer simulation). This also demonstrates an important tool in making rules for magic: having someone to explain things to.

You can’t explain things to the reader; that’s a direct violation of “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s often better to show what happens, and let the reader figure things out on their own. With magic, however, it’s sometimes necessary to explain SOME things, since otherwise the reader might get too confused by complex rules. So how do you explain things without explaining them? Do it in character.

Neo starts off knowing nothing about the Matrix. Harry Potter starts off knowing nothing about wizards. Frodo starts off knowing nothing about the One Ring. They need Morpheus, Hermione, and Gandalf to explain things to them. But they’re not really explaining things to them. They’re explaining things to us. As the characters talk, information is revealed to the audience to help us understand things. This is a commonly used way to reveal information to the audience while making it part of the story, rather than by exposition. It also helps strengthen the audience’s connection to the protagonist, but that’s another blog post.

I mapped out the rules for magic in my world before I started writing. I thought about where magic comes from, how people develop magical powers, how the powers function, what they can and can’t do, and so on. I structured most of the plot around these rules, and several of the major plot points are centered around the characters figuring them out. I never explain things to the reader; instead, I show the reader as each character explores and figures out her own power. They bring the reader along with each discovery they make.

What are the rules of magic in your story? Do characters need an object, special training, or magic words to cast a spell? Is it something they’re born with? Can magic be blocked? What are its limitations? Consider all of these questions to develop a more well-structured world.

That’s all about the rules of magic for this post. My next update will continue with tip #3: How to break your own rules (and do it right)

My Journey as a Professional Writer, Part 4: Time Management

One of the first lessons I learned when I began doing freelance writing is to keep careful track of my time. The first few jobs I took on, I didn’t really anticipate how long they would take me. I was used to only three previous types of writing: personal fiction writing, blog writing, and school essays and assignments. These types of writing are very different from a “time management” perspective.

With my personal fiction writing, I never really need to pay attention to how long a project takes. I know from doing word sprints on Twitter that I can write anywhere from 1000-2000 words per hour when I’m focused (and I tend to write a lot more when I’m really inspired and in the zone). I don’t really “track” that kind of writing, though. When I wrote “Manifestation,” I didn’t really have a specific word count in mind. It ended up over 140,000 words, and it took me about three months to write, but that was in between work, school, and other parts of life getting in the way. I don’t really know exactly how many hours I put into it (though somewhere around 140 hours on the first draft sounds about right).

Blog writing also isn’t something I really track too much. An average blog post might take me between 30-60 minutes, depending on the length. But since I write blog posts on my own time, and I don’t get paid for them, they aren’t worth tracking too specifically.

School papers are probably the only type of writing I was used to writing on a deadline. Like many students, I often wrote a paper the night before, and often this led to being up until all hours of the night because I hadn’t managed my time very well. Looking back, I think it would have been valuable for me to learn more back then about how long a piece of writing takes. In general, though, I estimate a rate of 500 words per hour on academic assignments, since they take more research and that slows down the writing speed.

Now that I’m taking on freelance writing assignments, the length of time a project takes is very important. If I take on a job for a certain fixed price, I need to be able to accurately estimate how many hours the project will take to complete. If I accept a job at a price of, say, $100, but the project takes me 20 hours to complete, I’m earning less than minimum wage. As a college educated writer, I know I should be making a lot more than that.

In order to help with future estimations, I’ve started tracking the specific lengths of time I take on each job. I downloaded a free time clock application to my computer, and I clock myself in and out when I’m working on a job. The hours spent are tracked for my own purposes only; most of the jobs I take on are for a fixed price that won’t change regardless of how much or how little time I spend on the project. Keeping track of my hours helps me better understand how long each project takes, and helps me know the hourly rate my pay equates to.

Since I’m trying to build up enough of a writing career to quit my pizza delivery job and write full time, it’s important for me to know how much time each project takes compared to the pay rate. I can’t support myself writing full time if a full 40 hour work week doesn’t provide enough pay to cover my living expenses. A job that takes 40 hours to complete but pays less than a weekly paycheck at a restaurant isn’t worth it. That’s why time management has become so important to me; I need to be able to judge how long each project will take me in order to decide which projects to take, and which to pass on.

I’ve only been freelancing for a few months now, but this has been an important lesson for me. If you’re also a freelance writer, or thinking of becoming one, the best advice I can offer is to always consider the value of your time. Otherwise, you’ll end up working 60 hours a week or more just to get by, and that’s no way to make a living.

My Journey as a Professional Writer, Part 2: Research

I’d like to tell you a story (as is my wont as a writer).

When I was in high school, I was really good with computers. My dad works in computer programming, so my family had a computer in our home in the 1980s, long before having a computer in every home was “normal.” I grew up playing computer games and learning to use the early DOS systems. I remember using a computer before there was a hard drive on it, which meant I had to insert a floppy disk just to boot up the operating system.

I’ve always been just slightly “above average” in computer skills. I’m no computer genius, and there’s lots of intricacies that a real computer expert would understand but I don’t. However, I know more about handling my computer and resolving its issues than most people I know. I’ve taken my computer apart, changed out components, etc. I can fix my own issues without needing the Best Buy Geek Squad.

To make a comparison, I’m the equivalent of a guy who can change a tire, do an oil change, and install new brakes; but who needs a professional mechanic (or at the very least, a manual or Google) to do a really complex repair. “Real” computer people laugh at my “skills,” but I know enough to take care of my own computer problems.

Because I’m above average in computer skills, I thought I could get an education in Computer Science and pursue that as my career. I started taking programming courses in high school, and I was the top of my class. I then decided to enroll at Rowan University in the Computer Science major.

My freshman year, I was getting straight A’s, and helping other students when they couldn’t understand things. My sophomore year, I got mostly A’s and some B’s, and one of my teachers showed one of my programs to the class as an example “an innovative approach” to the problem. Had I continued in the Computer Science major, I could have learned enough at the junior and senior levels (and then later, on the job) to become one of those “real” experts I described.

But I was bored.

I remember to this day the exact moment I realized the Computer Science major wasn’t for me. I was on the computer lab at school, working on a program for class. There were several other students there, discussing things that were slightly above my head. Prior to this point, I was used to being the top of the class, because my above average skills placed me ahead of all of the other less experienced students. By junior year, however, the program had weeded out the students that were only taking the classes for Gen Eds or for a minor. Students who decided “this isn’t the major for me” had dropped the program to pursue something else. I was about to become one of them.

The more advanced students, while discussing things I could almost, but not quite follow, began discussing articles in computer magazines. They talked about independent study that they did, and things they had learned outside of class. And that’s when it hit me.

I’d only ever be “average” (or slightly above average) if I only learned what they taught me in school. If I wanted to excel, I would need to do independent research, apply myself outside the classroom, and expand my learning so that I was teaching myself things the “average” students would never learn.

And I didn’t want to do that.

I had no real “interest” in computers. My entire reason for becoming a Computer Science major was because I was good at it, and I figured I could get a well-paying job with the degree. I had the ability, but not the passion.

Which is something I should have realized when I started writing stories in my notebooks instead of taking notes. One semester, I filled two spiral bound notebooks with a hand written story, and got a C in the class. I still have that story, but I don’t remember one damn thing I learned in that class.

These experiences taught me something: if you don’t have the drive and passion for something, it’s not worth doing. I could be a computer programmer today, and I’d be miserable at work. I’d probably be spending my spare time at work writing on the side, when I had time between assignments (in fact, that’s what I do now at my pizza delivery job; when there are no orders up, I write on my phone, and in fact that’s how I’m writing this blog post now).

Which brings me to the main point of this post: Research.

In order to become the best at anything, you need to learn as much as you can about it. What you learn in school isn’t enough, though college is a good start. Some people will say “You don’t need a college degree to be a writer.” They cite people like Neil Gaiman, who, from what I understand, never went to college. He’s also a frickin’ genius. If you’re NOT a genius (and most of us aren’t), I recommend getting the best education you can get.

In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King describes four “skill levels” of writers. To paraphrase: Picture a pyramid. At the bottom, the widest point, is the vast bulk of “unskilled writers.” These are average people who have likely never studied writing beyond what they learned in high school. At the very top, the narrowest point of the pyramid, are the elite, genius writers. Bestselling authors whose skill leaves many of us in awe.

The middle two levels are where most of us, as writers, will fall. You can be “good” or you can be “great” without necessarily ever achieving the level of genius writers. Now, more of us are probably just “good” instead of “great,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll never improve. Climbing the pyramid, from good to great (or maybe, just maybe, from great to amazing) takes more than natural talent. There are no “natural savants” in writing. There are no writers comparable to musicians and composers like Mozart, who was composing symphonies when he was five years old. No writer has ever written the Great American Novel before grade school. Writers simply aren’t born; they are made.

So if you want to become an expert writer, you need to hone your skills. You need to learn as much as you can. I recommend college, because I learned a LOT in Rowan’s Writing Arts program. Then there are writer’s conferences, seminars, and books like Stephen King’s “On Writing” or Sol Stein’s “Stein on Writing.” I recommend both; each one taught me a lot.

Even if you get a degree or attend a seminar, however, you’ll need to do more. If every other writer out there has been through the same education and attended the same seminars, you’ll be the same as them. You’ll be “average.”

I don’t want to be average. I want to be great. I don’t think I’m there yet; I know I’m a good writer, but I have a lot of room for improvement. So I research. I read books about the craft of writing. I search online, studying everything from grammar and punctuation to publishing and market trends. I ask people on Twitter for advice. I don’t sit in a little writer’s bubble, the way I did as a Computer Science major, thinking that I know enough. I devote a large portion of my time and energy into learning independently, as much as I can.

Because I study so much, I know some things about writing and publication that others don’t. I’m sure others also know things I don’t, and I try to share my knowledge and learn theirs whenever possible.

I bookmark websites with writing advice. I reread passages over and over trying to absorb what they say. I keep a copy of “The Elements of Style” by my computer, and take notes in the margins. I never stop learning.

So my advice, as a new and still learning and struggling professional writer, is to research as much as possible. Learn what you can, when you can, and never stop asking questions. If you don’t know something, look it up. Dictionary.com is one of my most used bookmarks, because I’m always trying to understand words better. Study grammar. Research what it takes to get published. Find out what the real differences are between self and traditional publication (I may just write a future post about that particular subject). Learn everything you can on the side. The difference between a writer who researches and studies on the side versus one who doesn’t is the difference between an A versus a C student. It’s the difference between average and successful. It’s the difference between doubting whether you’ll make it versus finding the tools to make SURE you make it.

I was just a slightly above average computer programmer. I intend to become a great professional writer.

Figuring things out, One step at a time

Revisions have been fairly overwhelming lately. As I mentioned before, my novel currently has too much backstory. I’ve needed to trim a fair bit of it, but I have had a hard time nailing down what had to go and what had to stay.

I figured out that the best way to handle it was one step at a time. I’ve got two major sections that needed to be trimmed down: Gabby’s opening story, and Tock’s. Between them, there’s over 99 pages that fall in the “uncertain” section. I’m definitely not cutting anywhere near that whole 99 pages, but all the things I DO need to cut fall somewhere within that range. That was an overwhelming amount of stuff to look at, and I was lost for a couple of weeks trying to sort through it all.

So I made a decision: just focus on Gabby’s sections first, and ignore Tock’s. This is easy to do at this part of the story because it’s before their paths directly intertwine, so I was able to look at each character separately.

Then I broke Gabby’s sections down even further. There are 3 chapters in that section, so I looked at them one at a time. By doing so, I was only looking at a 5-10 page section of the 99 pages. That made it a lot easier to focus on what I needed to do. I’ve cut 3600 words so far from just one of those three chapters. I haven’t touched the other two yet. I’ll tackle them next.

It made a big difference, I think, being able to look at the revisions this way. I’m a lot less stressed now. I haven’t even looked at Tock’s sections yet (and I know hers has the greater amount of cutting to be done). I’m not going to give her section a moment’s thought until the current set of revisions is done.

One step at a time. It’s a lot easier that way.

I’m on Goodreads

I just signed up for Goodreads.  I’m still poking my way around the site, trying to get the hang of things.  Though since Goodreads has the ability to link to my Twitter account, I was already able to connect with a few hundred of my Tweeps and add them on Goodreads as well.  If I didn’t find you yet and you want to ‘friend’ me, feel free to send me an invite!

I also have very little idea right now how Goodreads, y’know, works.  I’m open to any suggestions or advice about how to proceed.  I’ve written a couple of book reviews, but I’m not sure how many other options there are.  It seems like a rather extensive site and I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface.

And with any luck, my own book will be added and made available review… once I finish revising and get it published!