First of all, I apologize for my brief hiatus. Last week was wildly busy and I can’t wait to tell you all about it, but I haven’t had time to edit photos and it’s not worth sharing without photographic proof. Time management is hard, kids. Anyway, I thought I’d share a short post in the meantime with the promise that I’m getting back on schedule and you’ll read all about my adventures soon!
This morning someone described a character that I wrote as “intimidatingly sexy”. Here’s an actual photo of my reaction:
It’s not that I didn’t intend for said character to be sexy, because I did, it’s just that I’ve always been very insecure about whether or not I achieved it. Confession time: writing “sexy” makes me painfully uncomfortable.
I fully admit to being a person who likes to be comfortable. I’m a homebody who loves to be cozy. The more likely something is to make me uncomfortable, the less likely it is I’m going to do that thing; e.g. leaving my house, going for a run, talking to people I don’t know. But they say (they being perky girls on Pinterest who drink green smoothies) life begins at the end of your comfort zone. We can’t always be comfy, not if we really want to create something great.
When my editor read the first draft of ATFS, he pointed out a passage in which two characters kissed and said, “This is kind of abrupt. You just say, ‘Then they kissed.’ Try using more sensory detail.” Cue me blushing furiously and wondering why we can’t allow these characters some privacy.
When I thought “sensory detail” my mind immediately went to weird bodice ripper cliches and overused fanfiction phrases which, for me, are out of the question. Honestly, I blush when my characters start doing anything I wouldn’t do in front of my grandmother. If I ever published something truly graphic I might keel over and die. Like I said on my twitter this morning, it’s not that I’m a prude necessarily, I just tend to consider sex and sexuality a very personal and private thing. Writing tends to start blurring the lines between my life and my work. People who know me catch small pieces of me in random parts of my writing, and I know that’s part of the game. Writing is a personal act. That being said, I’m not interested in having people speculate about my sex life because I wrote some explicit stuff in a book. The very idea terrifies me.
However, the truth is there are miles and miles of land between my minimalist tendencies and Bodice Ripping territory, and I really believe exploring that territory really helped me become a better writer. People read fiction to explore, escape, and experience. They read to feel like they’re somewhere else. But they also read to relate, remember, and reflect. My job as a writer is to create a world comfortable enough to feel familiar, but different enough to feel exciting. I’ll give you a hint: “Then they kissed,” doesn’t get you there.
When I started my rewrite, I wrote the scene being as intentionally explicit and debaucherous as I could. My face was bright red the whole time and I hated it, but I forced myself to do it. From there, I picked out vivid details and emotions that added to the scene and development of the characters and chucked the rest. I was left with a more vivid scene and one of the lines I remain most proud of to this day:
“The way he said her name, more of a growl than a whisper, more of a prayer than a question, made her feel like the devil himself was skittering his fingers along her vertebrae like some macabre pianist.” – Across the Formidable Sea
Focusing on feelings and emotions and small details rather than major physical description worked for me. Taking my time and developing a mood rather than trying to rush through the things that made me uncomfortable culminated in a better end product.
The thing is, when you’re writing about people and trying to make them feel real, that means getting uncomfortable. It means making them problematic and wrong and weird. It means acknowledging that human desire exists, that physical chemistry in a relationship is important, and that sex and all things leading up to it can be anywhere on a spectrum from routine to mind-blowing with a fair dash of hilarious and gross in between. The more you’re able to tap into that reality, the deeper your readers will fall into your universe.
This has been coming up for me lately because my latest WIP includes more sexual content than ATFS did. It’s still difficult for me, and I put a high amount of pressure on myself to ‘do it right’. I’m still never going to be Diana Gabaldon or Sarah J. Maas, but I do feel more confident in my ability to convey love and lust in the way I want to, without avoiding the parts that make me uncomfortable.
I don’t know what your thing is. Maybe you don’t like writing deaths or struggle with dialogue between friends. Whatever it is, there’s nothing more satisfying than pushing past it and creating something you’re proud of in spite of it. Get uncomfortable. There will always be time to be comfy later.