Sex Scenes

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2015 at 10:00 am

So, over on tumblr I’ve started doing a sort of informal advice column, and one of the questions the other day seemed like a good topic for an Extribulum blog post. The question was:

When writing a novel that you plan to self-publish do you think it is better to include explicit scenes or not? While sex might not be extremely important to the overall plot the idea of cutting to the window is kind of cliche. Your thoughts?

This is actually something I thought over a lot when I was publishing Trace, which is still my only novel with a sex scene in it. I was really torn about whether to make it explicit, and I discussed it with my readers, both the positives (mainly narrative) and the downsides (mainly emotional, looking back). I ended up leaving it in, mellowed down a little from the original, but I think it is as valid to leave sex scenes out – it really depends on the story.

A lot of writers do “cut to the window” either because the sex wasn’t super necessary, because they think explicit sex will restrict their readership — not unlikely, depending on the demographic — or because they’re not comfortable publishing explicit sex. Publishing explicit sex can be a little harrowing; it seems like a window on our desires as writers. You can feel very exposed, putting something so intimate on display for everyone to judge. Besides, believing you’ve written a bad sex scene is pretty embarrassing, especially if it’s been out in the public eye for a while.

For Trace, the sex actually was kind of necessary to establish the characters’ relationships with each other, and I wasn’t especially concerned with the wider audience. While I’m less comfortable publishing a sex scene in a book that’s not packaged as specifically romantic or sexual (as with The City War, which was done through a publishing house where erotica is common) I still didn’t find myself so uncomfortable I was willing to cut the scene.

So I think, and this is very hard to do, with a sex scene what you need to try and do is take the personal out of the equation, that association of sex with intimacy and vulnerability as a writer, and ask yourself what’s best for the story.

The balancing act, generally, is between “information necessary to the story” and “acceptability of sexual material”. Those are two very broad umbrella terms, however.

Information necessary to the story doesn’t just mean exposition or explanation. It includes things like atmosphere, detail, and effect. Whether a sexually explicit moment contributes to the general atmosphere of the story, whether the story is the kind of story where detail about this would be included, and whether the scene functions to inspire specific feelings (arousal, delight, disgust, even offense) in the reader all come into play under the guise of “information”. Would removing the explicit scene leave the majority of readers feeling thwarted? Is thwarted, in itself, a feeling you want to inspire? There is a famously terrible sex scene in David Thewlis’s “The Late Hector Kipling” that actually won an award for being terrible, but if you’ve read the rest of the book you know that it’s intentionally awful, which rather spoils the award.

Acceptability of sexual material, likewise, isn’t just how acceptable it is to the reader. It’s how acceptable it is to the writer — to put that out there in the world, to push boundaries if writing sex would be boundary-pushing for a writer, to deal with people who may not like its presence in the book. These are things to take into consideration, for sure, even if the idea of considering a reader’s reaction may seem like conceding to censorship. I don’t think it’s quite that at all, but different people have different lines.

I’m a very utilitarian writer. I’m always looking for what a scene will add to a story, before I include it. This isn’t everyone’s style, but for me, the easiest litmus test of whether to leave something in is “What does this do for the narrative?” Not all writers are interested in using every scene to advance the narrative, but usually there is a goal you have with your writing, and you have to ask yourself how this scene or that scene fits into the goal. (Figuring out the goal often clarifies a lot about the story for me.)But in the end, it’s a personal decision – there are a lot of factors in play on any creative work, and part of being an artist is wrestling with questions like this when they appear, rather than just making a snap decision without much examination. I think the instinct to examine is good, and I hope this post has helped clarify where to begin with that examination.

Fucking Up

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2015 at 10:00 am

I’ve been trying to work out how to talk about fucking up for a while. I think I’ve finally managed it, but the discussion comes with some subjective clauses, particularly at the end. My defense is complex but my thesis is simple:

If you work in the arts, any of the arts, you are eventually going to fuck up.

Scientists and mathematicians fuck up, but they’re trained to fuck up, because they’re dealing with the natural world outside of their control. So when an experiment goes wrong, they generally say “Well, dammit, the physics/numbers/gorillas/particles didn’t do what I thought they were gonna” and while they might feel bad about getting the science wrong, there is an entire system of thought that goes “Science is writing down what happened when you fucked up” which forgives them. I’m making a vast generalization here, and I’m sure there are special science snowflakes who for whatever specific reason don’t get quite that much support for fucking up, but in a general sense, the STEM fields are a lot more forgiving of fuck-ups on the back end. They are in direct pursuit of knowledge, and covering up an error does not contribute to knowledge; in science, there are fixed and permanent provable things, and getting to those sometimes requires missing the pitch a few times.

When you’re an artist, you are told that you’re a Creator, that you control everything, and that’s heady and spectacular. And also the reason so many artists and writers have drinking problems and a history of divorce.

Nobody explicitly tells you that you can fuck up, though. Like, you know through common sense that not every artist is perfect all the time, probably even Jackson Pollock sometimes went “No, no, these particular splatters are all wrong” but the fact that you can fuck up and still benefit from fucking up is an apparently closely guarded secret none of us want to talk about because all Creators are also secretly super insecure. (This probably says a lot about my relationship to religion.)

So here it is: In the creative arts you can fuck up in school and you can fuck up in life, and here’s how you deal.

In any arts-based course, if you fuck up, it’s a chance to talk about your process and to get advice from teachers, who secretly love to give advice. If you like your work, or even if you don’t but you know it doesn’t suck, you should own that, no false modesty. Be proud of the good work you do. But if you don’t like your work because it’s genuinely bad or you know you fucked up or you didn’t get what you wanted out of it, school is where you get to say “Oh man, this is AWFUL, here’s what was going through my head, how wrong was that, right?” and then either “So here’s what I learned from it” or “Please help me, Professor, I fucked it up.” And then you either get points for learning or you get the help you need.

This whole process, the process of owning what you do whatever the quality, is what prepares you for when you get out into the post-academic world and no longer have a safety net. Because at that point you are educated and experienced enough to yell OH SHIT I’M FUCKING UP at yourself, and immediately stop and think about why you’re fucking up and how you can fix it.

I mean, the system isn’t perfect, but by the time you’re my age, as the saying goes, your motto is “It’s okay, I’ve fucked this up before.” Plus at 35 you’re too tired to stay up all night fixing something, so your best bet is to make sure you catch the mistakes before 6pm. For real, I need me some sleep.

Now of course there are exceptions, because some people have depression, or manic episodes, or anxiety, or other mental issues that mean that you cannot fuck up, ever, not even a little, not even privately, without suffering your own emotional self-abuse, and I get that. I do. But the above is meant to help stave off that thinking as much as possible. The rest is up to you, to find a way (be that medication or cognitive therapy or something else, what works for you) to tone that down to levels that your more rational mind can at least shout over.

And I don’t think artists are told any of this nearly as often as they should be.

So this is my message to you, creators, this week: it’s okay to fuck up. It has to be okay to fuck up. It’s okay to own that you fucked up and to ask for help.  In fact, it’s what makes fucking up okay.

Go forth and create (and fuck it up once in a while).

The Difficulty Of Beginning

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2015 at 10:00 am

Nearly everyone who writes has a different way of writing, and a different method of getting to the end — or getting to the start. I used to avidly read the kind of puff internet article people post to draw eyeballs to their site — quotes from writers about how to write, advice from writers about how to write, lists of techniques for writing. Even when I was reading them, I spent most of my time attempting to extract one or two useful things from a list of twenty. Which is why I eventually stopped, about five years ago now.

Peter Brook, who wrote one of the best handbooks I’ve ever read for theatre in specific and creativity in general, talks in The Empty Space about how incommunicable the art of creation can be:

One of the greatest actresses of our time who seems in rehearsal to be observing no method whatsoever actually has an extraordinary system of her own which she can only articulate in nursery language. ‘Kneading the flour today, darling,’ she has said to me. ‘Putting it back to bake a bit longer’, ‘Need some yeast now’, ‘ We’re basting this morning’. No matter: this is precise science, just as much as if she gave it the terminology of the Actors’ Studio. But her ability to get results stays with her alone: she cannot communicate it in any useful way to the people around her.

It’s true of writers, as of any creative, because we develop our own paths to the finished product. Conveying technique is hard not just because we as humans don’t have a great vocabulary for the intangibles of art, but also because our technique may be irrelevant to someone else’s life anyway. And unfortunately, standardizing language about creativity wipes out a grand diversity of technique that simply can’t be easily put into words. So when I started to think about talking about writing beginnings, I found the above rather comforting.

Honestly, I don’t often remember how I begin a story. Sometimes because the writing takes a long time; Nameless was something like four years start to finish, and the original fiction I’m working on now I began in January of 2014. My memory is a bit of a sieve at the best of times, and because I start so many stories, the start doesn’t often seem relevant to me. So sometimes, even talking to oneself about creativity can be difficult.

TS Eliot talks about the difficulty of beginning to speak in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

I’m sure there are many learned ways of interpreting this, but as a writer it illuminates that terrifying moment when you have to be arrogant enough to believe someone wants to hear what you have to say — and where do you start when you have so much to say?

I do know that nearly every time I’ve run a novel past my readership, I’ve had to move the start of the story. I don’t tend to open a story with excitement, which is generally an error on my part. Novels need a hook to keep people interested, and I’m a contemplative writer, not an action-oriented one.

I’ve made my peace with the beginning I write rarely ever being the actual beginning that makes it to the final print. Every kind of writing has a time and place, within a story, but the nice thing about first drafts is no specific form of writing has to be in a specific place. So I often still start stories with the “wrong” kind of writing, and go back later and fix it. The important thing is to get the story rolling.

But I can never remember how I do that. I don’t remember opening a new document and staring at empty space, waiting for words to come — nor do I remember, at least not often, having the words and waiting impatiently for the new document to open. I suspect I usually begin stories elsewhere — in emails to myself, as notes on pages of a notebook during a meeting, in random text documents I happened to have open at the time. But I also suspect being conscious of Beginning would ruin the story from the outset. It’s important not to put too much stock in the quality of the Beginning. As I have learned, it might not be there for very long.

None of this is of much use to you, the reader, of course, especially if you’d like to be You, The Writer and are just looking for advice on a way to begin.

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
Eliot talks of being insignificant, choked by his own fear into silence, unable to begin, and of wondering if beginning would even have been worth it. I think he understood the fear of the Beginning. But I think that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to starting a work: the fear that when you show it off, it won’t be worth it. And while it’s very common, it’s also absurdly human: no one will see it for ages, so why do we fear? But we do.
So perhaps it is best to start stories on scraps of notebook paper and in emails to self. It’s hard to imagine ever showing those to someone else anyway, and it gives you the space and privacy to begin.
The architect Daniel Burnham said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”, and while I love the breadth and scope of beauty in creation that his words imply, “little” is a word for architects, not writers. Architects are circumscribed by physical space. Writers can make little plans to their heart’s content — they don’t need anything to grow from a Beginning except time and thought.