Writing a Sex Scene

The bedroom, a common setting for a sex scene.

: This post is a serious discussion about writing a common feature in literature and how to do it. It is not meant to be humorous, titillating, or controversial. That being said, this post will go into a topic that many people find uncomfortable, so please use your own discretion before proceeding further. Thank you for your understanding.

Sex scenes show up quite a bit in fiction, and seem to have increased with the passage of time as society has become much more tolerant of (or maybe obsessed with) the subject of sex and sexuality. That being said, many writers aren’t sure how to write these sort of scenes into their stories, let alone if they should have one to begin with. I recently wrote one into my WIP, and I figured now might be a good time to talk about this subject.

Now, I don’t write sex scenes often. However, I’ve written a few in my career, as well as read too many to count, including some in erotica novels and short stories (though not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). I’ve gained some insights over the years into this type of scene, so I think the ones I share here with you should be helpful.

This brings us to our first question:

Should I have a sex scene in my story? The obvious answer is, it depends. And it depends on two factors: the story’s need for one and the author’s level of comfort. Some stories just don’t require a sex scene. My upcoming novel Rose didn’t require one and adding one would’ve felt gratuitous, so I didn’t include one. For my WIP River of Wrath however, I could see where a sex scene might actually add something to the story, so I included it.

Should I have a sex scene in my story?

How do you tell which stories should have a sex scene? Well, some are more obvious than others. However, if you’re not sure, go back in later drafts and see if the scene feels weirdly inserted upon a second reading. And if you’re still not sure, ask your beta readers. That’s what they’re there for.

And if you as the writer don’t feel comfortable writing sex scenes, no problem. Everyone’s comfort levels with these things should be taken into account, and we’re all comfortable with different things. If you don’t like the idea of casually broaching the subject of sex, let alone writing about it, don’t. No one will send you to prison for it, let alone prevent you from ever getting published.

So if the story could use a sex scene and you feel comfortable enough to write it, what’s next?

Have the scene evolve like sex normally does. Sex doesn’t just happen: there’s a progression. Sometimes it starts with a kiss and involves foreplay. Sometimes it involves a look and goes straight to doing the deed. It depends on the people involved and what they’re up for. Likewise, how it happens in your story should have a natural evolution. Just having characters talk or meet and then go straight to sex doesn’t usually work, so show how it happens.

Pay attention to language. I’ve received some feedback on this from my own sex scenes, so I’m passing it on to you. First off, don’t be afraid to actually talk about certain body parts or their nicknames (apparently women are okay using the word c**k or d**k in literature. I was very surprised to learn that). You don’t have to get super-technical about it, using words like “vulva” or “vas deferens.” Just don’t be afraid to talk about them or what’s being done to them.

The second point is that the language should match the mood of the scene. Going for something risque? The language should reflect the adventurous nature of the scene. Kinky, maybe even involving BDSM? Rougher words would work better. Romantic, like the one in my WIP? Words emphasizing sensuality, connection, touch and love work the best.

What language you use in your scene matter quite a bit.

Just don’t use phrases like “Holy cow” to describe one participant’s reaction to the other’s penis being unveiled. Sorry EL James, but that’s more laughable than erotic.

The scene doesn’t have to be super-long. I’ve encountered sex scenes that have gone for a whole chapter comprising of several thousand words, and I’ve encountered some that were as short as a page. The one I wrote in my WIP was a little over a thousand words, or about four or five pages. So if you write one that’s maybe three pages, don’t feel bad that it isn’t longer. As I said, they come in all different lengths.

Pay attention to all body parts and surroundings. As much as we think of sex as involving only a few select body parts, it involves the entire body of each participant. As much as the scene may emphasize what the lower parts are doing, pay attention to what the arms and legs are doing. What is the back doing? Is the hair doing anything worth noting (yes, it can be worth mentioning)? Keep all that in mind while writing the scene.

Also, pay attention to surroundings. Is the scene taking place in a bed? Does it creak during the scene? Are items on the wall affected? Perhaps it’s taking place in a more public setting, like the back of a car. The participants may worry about being spotted by passerby. In a club? Are they noticing music playing or other people passing by?

These are important things to keep in mind, so don’t lose track of them while writing your scene.

 

And finally, there’s one more piece of advice on this subject I’d like to impart:

Read plenty of other examples and practice. Writing is often learned by intuition, example, trial and error. That being said, only so much can be imparted by reading this article. If you’re truly interested in writing a sex scene, read plenty of scenes from other authors from many different genres. See what works and what doesn’t, and incorporate it into your own style.

Always learn from the examples of others if you can.

And it couldn’t hurt to practice writing these sorts of scenes. It hasn’t have to be part of a story you’re working on, or something you’d ever consider publishing. Just try it to see if you can write a scene that you’d consider halfway decent. Like anything in our field, getting good takes practice, and that includes sex scenes. So consider practicing them as well when you have a moment. It can’t hurt, can it?

Whether or not you’ve ever considered writing these scenes or whether or not they’re necessary, it’s always a good idea to have some idea on how to write a sex scene. A lot goes into writing them, so it’s always a good idea to have some idea of what to do when working on them. I hope this article helped in some capacity with your own sex scenes.

How often do you write sex scenes? What tips do you have for writing them?

What Do You Wear to an Author Event?

Not too long ago, I was talking with someone about my upcoming novel Rose. They said that it might not be a bad idea for me to maybe get some fancier get-ups, seeing as the book was being published by a company and I was in a better financial position than I was in college to do a book tour.

Now generally, I just wear whatever’s comfortable, and this person’s job required them to dress much nicer than your average Joe in most situations. So I wasn’t sure I really needed a new suit jacket and some fancy pants. Still, it stuck my mind. A lot of authors dress up when I’ve seen them at readings or on TV shows. And one author I really liked, Richard Castle from Castle (yeah, I know he’s fictional, but he’s got tie-in novels in our world, so he kind of counts) always wore nice shirts, pants and jackets. And Castle is kind of like the adult, mystery author-version of me. Perhaps I should get some new duds.

On the other hand, Stephen King usually wears sweaters and jeans to author events and TV appearances. When I went to see RL Stine at a reading (yes, that happened), he was wearing just a button-down shirt and pants. And one author I’ve had some contact with and was a huge voice during the recent Cockygate controversy usually wears tank tops that show off her tattoos and a cap when she makes YouTube videos (and in our increasingly digital age, that platform works just as well as TV).

So what to do? Well, I do what I do in times like this, I turn to Facebook author groups. And I quickly got a response in return. The answer: it depends.

More specifically, it depends on what kind of impression you’re trying to create. Some authors want to be seen as no different than their readers, so they dress as they do during a normal day off. Others like the effect a suit or a nice dress creates with an audience and thus dress up. And other authors like to dress up in a distinctive manner. This can be as simple as dressing up as one of their characters (especially if said character has a particular look), or as dressing up as a particular type or idea of a character. Our good friend Joleene Naylor recently went to an author event where she dressed up as a vampire like out of the stories she writes, and it apparently worked well for her in more ways than one.

Son Owen and father Stephen King on Good Morning America recently. As you can both see, they’re just wearing some comfortable button-downs.

In addition to personal choices, genre can sometimes affect what you wear to a book reading or in an author bio pic. Mystery writers tend to dress up more, as that makes them appear more distinguished and intelligent, which is what we want writers of mysteries to be. Horror authors, however, still deal with misconceptions that we’re all cannibalistic murderous sex-fiends, so we often dress pretty normally. Unless of course we have something to cosplay as, and then all bets are off!

In any case, what you end up wearing to a book reading or during a YouTube interview or whatever depends largely on your own personal tastes and comfort, the image of yourself you wish to put out there, and perhaps the expectations of your readers. If you’re confused, network with your fellow writers and see what they have to say. Surely one of them will say something to help you pick out an ensemble for your next reading at the local bookstore.

As for me, I think casual clothes will suit me well in most situations, though I can see some instances where I might want to put on a nice button-down and a jacket (Trevor Noah, call me!). It’s just how I roll. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What do you prefer to wear to an author event? Do you have any tips on how to dress for one?

The Elevator Pitch: Telling People About Your Book in One Sentence

You may be talking to someone at a party, at work, or while waiting to lead an army of werewolves and asuras into battle to stop the demonic entity Delassi from entering our dimension and consuming it entirely (or is that just me?), and the subject you’ve written or published one or more books may come up. If that happens, there’s a good chance they may ask what your book is about. And that leaves you with the decision on how best to tell them what your story is about without giving away too much or too little.

In instances like these, I prefer to use what’s called the elevator pitch, something I picked up from my job-seeking days (which thankfully are well behind me!). The idea of the elevator pitch is to present the shortest and most succinct description possible for any possible subject. For a job-seeker like myself back in the day, that would be a short description of myself that would give the hiring official an idea of what sort of employee I would be. But for a novel, the elevator would be the briefest description of the story’s plot.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, “But Rami, my story’s too complex or long to just summarize it in one sentence.” And I can understand that. There are plenty of stories that are difficult to summarize. I’d be hard-pressed to give an elevator pitch for the Song of Ice and Fire series (the closest I’ve ever come is someone making a joke about the series and saying it’s about, “Knights, dragons and boobs,” which is true but probably not the best elevator pitch). However, I find stories that defy the elevator pitch are the exception rather than the rule. Most can be boiled down to their essential nature and used in an elevator pitch.

For example, the Harry Potter books:

A young boy goes to wizard school and discovers his destiny.

Or To Kill a Mockingbird:

A trial with racial overtones sets a small town on edge as one lawyer attempts to give his client a fair shot at justice.

Or Carrie:

A bullied teenage girl discovers she’s telekinetic and decides to use her powers to free herself from her torment, with disastrous results.

When I tell people about my own upcoming novel Rose, this is the elevator pitch I usually give them:

A young woman starts turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems).

Yes, that’s the plot, and it’s actually getting published. And a lot of people have heard that summary and have asked me to let them know the moment the book is available for purchase.

The upside to using the elevator pitch method is that it takes a big story and condenses all a prospective reader needs to know into a single sentence without bogging them down into unnecessary details like the complex relationship between the Seven Kingdoms, or the blood-purity debate among wizards, or any other details that a reader would be better off learning through actually reading a story. It’s especially helpful if you’re in a place where things happen fast and people come and go quickly, such as in line at a coffee shop, saying hello to the usher you’re on first-name basis with at the movie theater, or, I don’t know, on an elevator.

Another upside to this method is that you can use the pitch with your blog, or short stories you’re submitting to magazines or anthologies, and a whole lot more.

The one downside I can think of, besides that a few stories can’t be summarized in a sentence that easily, a single sentence can’t capture the beauty or the power of a story. The sentence I gave above for Mockingbird can’t impart to the potential reader what a beautiful and emotional coming-of-age story it is, and the one for Harry Potter certainly doesn’t tell you just how awesome those books or the worlds inside them are.

But compared to boring people’s ears off with an entire synopsis or just reading the blurb to them right off the book jacket, this might be the better method, and one I’d highly recommend.

So how does one condense their story to a single sentence? That’s up to the author to decide. No one knows the story better than the author, so they ultimately figure that out. The only advice I can give is to not try to rush it. This can take a while, sometimes several days, to figure out. That, and maybe ask yourself what’s the first thing you think of when it comes to your story. Often, that image that appears in your head is the story at its simplest.

While it may seem a little paradoxical, summarizing a story into a single story and using that as your elevator pitch can make for a great marketing tool in everyday interactions. Who knows? That single sentence could get you a number of eager new readers, if you’re lucky.

Do you use elevator pitches when marketing and submitting your stories? What are some tips you use when coming up with them?

The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Lengthening Your Story

I know it’s about three months too late to say this, but Happy New Year, everyone!

Now, to the main topic: has anyone ever told you your story, one which you might have worked months on and is already tens of thousands of words long, is good, but needs to be longer? I have: back in my senior year of college, I had written a novel called Rose for my senior thesis. Near the end of my last semester, I met with my thesis advisor to discuss the novel one more time (at that point in its second draft). We talked about a number of qualities with the novel, its strengths and weaknesses, and where I could go with  the next draft. One of the most memorable suggestions? Make it twice as long as it was already.*

At that time, the novel was about forty-thousand words long, so doubling it seemed like an impossible task. However, two years later I did somehow manage to add about that many words, and it actually did help the story. How did I accomplish this feat? Well, here are some of the steps I took to lengthen my story, which might be of some help to you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1. Figure out if the story really does need lengthening. Every story, like every person, is unique. And some are meant to be shorter. If your story works at about seven-thousand words, don’t expand it to twenty-five thousand because you feel it won’t do well that short or to fit an anthology’s needs. Instead, think long and hard about whether the story itself would be better if longer. And if you’re not sure, ask for a second or third opinion. It wasn’t just my thesis advisor, but two other early readers from Ohio State who told me to make it longer, so that’s what I did. See if anyone in your writing circle can give you an objective opinion on the story and if it needs to be longer.

If you get a positive on that question, then here are some strategies you can try.

2. Try expanding a scene.  In two instances in Rose, there were parts where the protagonists remembers episodes in her life that had a lasting impact on her. In between the second and third draft, I felt that those scenes should have more happening in them in order to maximize their effectiveness. Sure enough, those scenes were made more powerful by going deeper into them and expanding the action.

And speaking of expanding:

3. Add a new chapter. This one, I’d treat as a sort of last resort. In Rose, it was necessary: I needed to reveal a ton of information to the reader, and couldn’t put that info into a previously-established chapter. A new chapter was necessary. So only write a new chapter if it is absolutely necessary, and if adding the new scenes or information can’t be done in any previous chapter.

4. Go deeper into a character’s character. Some characters might benefit from going deeper into their personalities or histories. Perhaps you can expand on what a character is thinking in a certain situation, showing us what thoughts lead to their actions. Or maybe you’ll want to go into why another character is very passionate about something, and relate it to something in their past. In Needful Things by Stephen King, one character is passionately against gambling. This is partly due to religious reasons, but later it’s revealed his father was an alcoholic gambler who abandoned the character’s family several times due to drinking and gambling debts. It’s an interesting reveal, and added depth to an otherwise stock character as well as a few more words.

5. Add a new character/expand a minor character’s role.  In the first and second drafts of Rose, I mentioned two characters who had a big impact on the antagonist. However, they’re only mentioned by other characters and never actually seen. In the third draft, I not only added scenes featuring these two characters, but created a third character who also had a big impact on the antagonist. Doing so added a new level of depth to the antagonist, which my beta readers loved.

6. Add a new element or two to the story. I did not do this with Rose, but it’s still a legitimate strategy. For example, in 2007 an anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aired in Japan and later was released internationally.  It was twenty-four episodes, and part of the reason an anime based on a two-hour play was able to be that long is because they set the anime in a fantasy universe complete with flying horses, a rebel army, and magic trees (I haven’t seen it yet, so I have no idea if that works, but apparently a lot of people like it, so I guess it worked for some people).

You can do something similar with your own stories, though it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as changing the entire setting and genre of the story. What would happen if you added drag racing to your story about lovers from different social classes? Or what if your protagonist is given a disability that they must overcome along with whatever obstacle faces them in the story? The only limits are your imagination, and you can create some interesting new scenarios when you add new elements to the story.

 

Not all stories need to be longer than they already are. But in the event that they need to be, there are several ways to go about doing that. As long as you do it well and it’s not shoehorned in awkwardly, anything you add can only add to the story. Both in word count and in story quality.

What tips do you have for expanding a story? Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did it work out?

*At least, I think that’s what he said. It may have actually been add another ten or twenty thousand words, but I’m pretty sure he said double it. Not that it really matters, in the end.

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

What is the Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character

The original Mary Sue illustration, not just making fun of the character, but the stereotypical girl who might write Mary Sue stories. *shiver*

If you’ve been around the fiction or Internet scenes awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue,” and wondered what it is. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about what the term actually means. Some people think it’s a super-powered, almost perfect character. Others think it’s a character meant to be an avatar for the author to go be heroic in their own story. Others think it’s a female character who’s a badass and has amazing skills. And a few people thought it was the name of a steamboat featured in a popular song (that’s the Proud Mary).

Except for the boat, all of those definitions are technically both right and wrong. Not only that, but the term Mary Sue actually carries some negative connotations, and the application of the term to a character, particularly a protagonist, can be seriously detrimental to a character and the story they feature in.

So what is a Mary Sue? Well, the term dates back to 1973, when author and editor Paula Smith wrote the satirical short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” for her sci-fi fan fiction magazine Menagerie. The story centered around a character named Mary Sue, a fifteen-and-a-half year old girl who says stuff like, “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” and is the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. In the course of the four-paragraph story, both Kirk and Spock fall in love with her, the whole crew gets captured by androids, she tells Spock she’s half-Vulcan before freeing them, they all come down with a disease that Mary Sue is only slightly less-affected by, she nurses them back to health at the cost of her own life, and becomes an intergalactic heroine who is given all sorts of posthumous awards and tributes for “her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”

As I said, the story was satirical, and was a parody of most fan fiction at the time, which was mainly the authors inserting themselves into their stories and having adventures that elevated them to the status of being more amazing than any other character or even the world itself. But that’s the essential issue with this sort of character: the entire story serves to show how awesome these characters are. The character just waltzes through life, universally admired by all and able to easily overcome any obstacle. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and if something does happen to them–usually death–they are immediately celebrated for being an awesome hero.

The problem with this sort of character is that it’s boring. The story isn’t about immersing the reader in an interesting world or taking them on an incredible journey. The author has decided this character is the most important character of all, so they write the story to highlight their greatness at the expense of their actual story. Imagine if Harry Potter wasn’t about a likable boy–one who wishes he grew up in a loving household, is happy to be in a world full of magic and friends, struggles through homework like the rest of us, and is clearly uncomfortable with his destiny and his fame–but instead was a perfect wizard whose past is only touched upon, and breezes through everything, from classes to fighting Voldemort, with nary a bad thought or a frown to trouble him. Important features like the cool magical world, Horcruxes, or the messages of love and tolerance that define the story would be downgraded in importance or thrown away to focus on Harry, how cool he is, how smart he is, how adept at magic he is.

Sounds boring, right? There’s absolutely nothing about the character to identify with or any exciting conflicts to overcome. And the vast majority of people agree. In fact, after “A Trekkie’s Tale” came out, the story went the 70’s version of viral, making “Mary Sue” a term applied to characters who exist only to show off off how amazing they are at the sacrifice of great character development or world-building, and forever marking the trope as a sign of bad storytelling. Menagerie even put out a statement in 1976 stating they hated Mary Sues (as well as their male counterparts, Marty or Gary Sues). And the hate continues today, with the Sues being rejected by all literature lovers, whether familiar with the term or not.

And in that statement right there comes the issue that has grown from the identification of the Sue trope: the baseless accusation. A lot of people, whether through ignorance or maliciousness, have accused characters from all sorts of works of being Sues. Usually these characters are front and center in their stories, highly adept at a number of skills suited for their environment, and, because the trope was first defined with a female character, female. For example, Rey from The Force Awakens was accused by some of being a Mary Sue,  as she is a protagonist, skilled in scavenging and fighting, and is apparently a Force prodigy. However, as defined above, Rey does not fit the mold of the Sue: the story does not become a tool to highlight her greatness. Rey is a flawed character, with skills that make sense given her environment and a need for someplace to call home. And while she is Force-powerful, she’s not using it to easily defeat her enemies with a flip of her wrist like a Sue would. Clearly the shoe doesn’t fit.*

But that there’s the issue: the Sue label can be applied so easily to characters possessing certain traits, and because of that, some writers are afraid to write certain characters or even to write at all due to the stigma of the Sue label, which can turn away audiences if too many people start believing a character isa Sue. And this is especially bad for female leads. Paula Smith, the woman who first named the trope, once led a panel of women writers who all said they never write female leads, because every time they’ve tried the characters have been labeled Sues. And in researching this article, I found a Mary Sue “test” where, if you answered the first question as “Yes, the main character is female,” it’s automatically a Sue.

But this is not the Sue, and there’s only one test to define one: is the story written simply to show off how “amazing” a character is, rather than tell a story involving a likable character with an arc? If the answer is yes, that’s the sign of a Sue. That’s all you need to identify one, and that’s all you need to avoid writing one. Stick with telling a story about a character who isn’t perfect, but has room to grow through the events of the story. You can still insert yourself as a character (God knows I did it with my novel Snake), but treat your insert as you would any other protagonist, someone who has to struggle both inwardly and outwardly in order to accomplish their goal. The Sue label may still get hurled, regardless of the gender of the character, but at least you’ll know that the accusation has less sticking power than if you actually wrote a Sue into your story.

What’s your take on the Mary Sue trope? Did I miss anything in discussing it? How do you avoid the trope?

*Plus no one accuses Luke of being a Gary Sue, despite Mark Hamill himself stating the character is an author insert (Lucas = Luke S.), he’s great at piloting any sort of ship, and he’s proficient enough in the Force to blow up the Death Star barely two days after learning it exists.

Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.

Handbook for Mortals: How One Author Scammed the NYT Bestseller List, and How a Twitter Community Exposed It

This isn’t directly about self-publishing, but it is related to what we work hard to do, so I’m posting about it.

Over this past weekend, a friend of mine posted an article from The Daily Dot on Facebook about how an author had scammed the New York Times bestseller list. Obviously, I got curious, so I checked it out.  According to the article, the YA community on Twitter had noticed something weird about the NYT YA bestseller list. A new novel that nobody had heard of, Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, had appeared out of nowhere and knocked The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The novel follows a girl with magical abilities who goes to Vegas, works in a magic show, and has a love triangle (that old chestnut. That old I’m-going-to-waste-my-natural-talents-while-doing-one-of-the-biggest-romance-cliches-ever chestnut). Lani Sarem, the author, is described as an actress and former band manager.

Like I said, nobody in the community had heard of the novel, and they got very suspicious when they heard that the book was published by GeekNation, a movie and pop-culture website that just got into publishing last month! And in that time, they put out a book that hit the top of the YA bestseller list? Obviously, some were confused by this, and the community, led by writers and YA enthusiasts Phil Stamper (@stampepk) and Jeremy West (@JeremyWest), started investigating. What they uncovered is mind-boggling.

Turns out, there’s practically no physical copies of Handbook for Mortals.  None.  It was listed as “Out of Stock” on Amazon, and no Barnes & Noble seemed to carry any physical copies. No one from the YA Twitter community came forward with a copy. And yet the book was already a bestseller, with the author herself planning on starring as the lead character in a movie version of the novel! How exactly does that happen?

Turns out, the author and her publisher were placing bulk orders for “events” like conventions or author signings at various booksellers across the country. When ranking its bestseller lists, the NYT relies not on the actual number of books sold, but number of reported orders and sales from booksellers. So they see that this one book in the YA category is getting a ton of orders in bulk, and without any indicators to present something fishy, there’s a new entry on the bestseller list.

That’s actually kind of clever. Horrible, as all cons are, but still kind of clever. Now if there were actual copies of the novel, it might have worked.

It only got crazier from there. Remember when I said Sarem was a band manager? Well, one of her former bands was Blues Traveler, and they admitted through Twitter that Sarem had done similar stuff when she was their manager, and they fired her for it (they later took down that tweet, but it’s already out there, so…). So we’ve got an author and her publisher, one of whom has done bulk orders to boost visibility of a product/group, using bulk orders to send a book up the NYT Bestseller list.

Well, Twitter’s YA community wasn’t happy about it. Stamper and West started encouraging bookstore employees through DMs to come forward about this. As it became more apparent that there was something fishy going on, the NYT finally took notice and saw what the YA Twitter community had uncovered. They later released an updated list, with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas back on top, and Handbook for Mortals nowhere in sight.

It later came out that Sarem’s whole goal was to star in the movie version, but she needed buzz, so she got the book onto the bestseller list. If she could get it on the list, she’d be able to get funding for a movie. God, that’s horrible.

So what can we take from this story? Obviously, if you notice something suspicious, you’re perfectly capable of doing Spotlight-style sleuthing and discover  conspiracy. But it just goes to show what happens when you try to skimp on hard work and still make it to the top.

There’s no substitute for hard work. And the majority of authors, no matter if it’s their first or sixtieth book, work as hard as possible. We write, edit, edit several more times, try to get good covers, and do our best at marketing our stories. This applies whether you’re a traditionally or independently published author. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we don’t. Still, we try our hardest. But when someone tries to game the system and build hype by being fake, there’s always going to be people who notice.

And sometimes, when they notice, they can bring down an entire scam and keep someone unworthy from getting a literary and acting career.

Prisma: An Inadvertent Cover-Creating App?

Prisma app logo

A friend of mine has told me that covers should look good, because people unfortunately do judge books by their covers. With that in mind, I try to create the best covers I can, using what resources I have and looking to friends when I can’t do something with a cover. And recently, I came across an app that I think I can add into my cover creating resources: Prisma.

I got this app on the suggestion of a friend, who told me that it can be used to make your own artwork out of photographs (I’ve got my own apartment these days, and I’m looking to put some more art on the walls without breaking the bank). Prisma is a recent creation dating back to June 2016, and was created by Alexey Moiseenkov. The app relies on artificial intelligence and a neural network to take photos on your phone and turn it into art. The best part is, you can choose from forty different art styles–or as they’re called in app-language, “filters”–in turning your photos into art. Some of these filters come standard when you download, while I believe others can be bought from a store.

Take this selfie of me, pre-filter:

Now put it through the Comic filter:

Not bad, right?

Now here’s a shot of my multivitamins:

Put it through the Roy filter:

It makes no sense to me, so it must be art!

Yeah, it’s a fun app, and the filters allow for some really wonderful, one of a kind pictures for your personal gallery. But I realized soon after I made some art pieces with the app that there were further uses for this app than just stuff for my wall. Perhaps uses that even Mr. Moiseenkov hadn’t thought of. What if you could use this app to give your cover a special touch?

Yeah, we work hard on our covers. We learn Photoshop, we download stuff from the internet, we take special shots in the middle of the night while it’s snowing heavily (or is that just me?). But sometimes we feel like there’s something missing, something that makes the cover perfect. Why not add a little art to it?

For example, here’s a cover provided to us by our good friend Joleene Naylor, who downloaded it from CanstockPhoto.com. The photo was uploaded by a user called–I kid you not–remains:

It’s a good cover, and gives an idea of what sort of story it is. Problem is, the impression might be a bit too general, to the point that you worry it seems too run-of-the-mill.

Now put it through the Candy filter:

Nice! Not only does it look like it was painted, but the effect kind of brings to mind a strange, Warhol-esque vibe. Maybe this story takes place in Greenwich Village in the sixties, and there’s a hippie girl who isn’t so into peace and love, or something. Slap on a title and author name and you’re good to go to publish!

Bottom line, there’s plenty of potential for creating covers with Prisma. With so many different styles to choose from, there’s sure to be a way to make your cover look special. Download it to your phone, give it a go, and see for yourself.