Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 30th, 2010

Good sex in fiction

with 4 comments

Today’s awarding of the Bad Sex in Fiction prize to novelist Rowan Somerville (whose book, The Shape of Her, is unfortunately unavailable in the U.S.) raises the obvious question of what good sex in fiction is, exactly, and how a writer should go about writing it.

When I think about sex in fiction, I’m reminded of what Julia Roberts says about her refusal to do nude scenes: “To act with my clothes on is a performance; to act with my clothes off is a documentary.” In the case of a novel, this means that sex often takes the reader’s attention away from the story and puts it squarely on the writer—on his word choice, on what he chooses to describe (or not), even on his own sexual proclivities. (I know I’m not the only reader who has wondered about, say, Nicholson Baker.) And that’s the last thing any writer should want.

In general, the rules for writing about sex are the same as writing about everything else: be concise, revise, don’t take the reader out of the story, and, unless you’re John Updike, tread very, very carefully. Which brings me to my own favorite sex scene in all of fiction, and one of my favorite scenes of any kind, from Updike’s Rabbit is Rich.

Near the end of the novel, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle-aged and married, on a trip to Jamaica with three other couples, ends up engaging in a bit of wife-swapping, although not with his first choice. He goes reluctantly to a hotel room with Thelma, his friend Ronnie’s wife, and as they’re on the verge of adultery we get this wonderful moment:

Thelma asks, “You mind using Ronnie’s toothbrush? I’ll be a while in here, you better take the bathroom first.”

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

And so on, for almost a page, as Rabbit looks at Thelma and Ronnie’s bathroom supplies and wonders what Consumer Reports had to say about toothpaste. Only then, does he step back into the bedroom, where Updike spends the next twelve pages describing a series of increasingly awkward sexual encounters.

Updike, of course, won the Bad Sex in Fiction prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The fact is, though, that he wrote really well about sex, as he wrote really well about everything. I’m not going to destroy this scene with too much analysis, except to say that Updike’s sense of how Rabbit’s adulterous eye would stray to shaving cream brands is a reminder of what made him the best American novelist of the last half century. It’s also a reminder, in case we needed it, that most sex in fiction is inherently ridiculous.

So just play it safe.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Fanfic and the writer’s apprenticeship

with one comment

Fuel Your Writing has a nice little piece this morning on whether fanfic is worth a writer’s time. I have two tidbits of my own:

1. There exists a Kung Fu Panda fanfic, “A Different Lesson,” that is 632,000 words long. (According to TV Tropes, “very little of it is filler; there’s just that much going on.”) By way of comparison, War and Peace weighs in at a mere 460,000 words. I don’t have much else to say about this, except that it’s possibly my favorite fact ever.

2. If you believe, as I do, that a writer’s apprenticeship is best served in public, then fanfic is incredibly useful. Back when pulp magazines were still thriving and a strong market existed for paperback originals, it was more than possible for a young writer to learn his craft in public, with actual readers, and even get paid for the privilege. These days, when most pulp magazines have folded and publishing is increasingly focused on a few big books, that kind of public apprenticeship is all but impossible, except for a lucky few.

Which is where fanfic comes in. Given the broad range of fanfic that exists—for every television show, most big movies, and an incredibly large number of literary sources—it isn’t hard for a writer to find a fandom that might accommodate the kind of writing he or she wants to do. And stories written in a popular fandom, if executed with even a modicum of style, will be read, for pleasure, by real people. Even novels. Even screenplays. Even radically experimental works. And the author will get feedback, much of it encouraging, from people under no obligation to read his or her work at all.

Writing this sort of fiction, of course, poses problems of its own. Among other things, a fanfic writer’s capacity for creating original characters can easily wither and die. But if approached with care, fanfic can be an extraordinary opportunity for a writer to develop craft and find a voice in front of a real audience. (Naomi Novik, among other novelists, has credited her work in fanfic with much of her development as an author.) Anyone interested in writing for a living would certainly be advised to consider it.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Progress report

leave a comment »

Because my thoughts on writing are inevitably colored by my own experience of the publishing process, I’ll occasionally be posting updates as Kamera works its way to bookstores. Here, then, is the story so far:

On September 10, my agent submitted Kamera to publishers. On October 6, after a fairly grueling submission process, we received an offer from New American Library, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, to publish Kamera and an untitled sequel in a two-book deal. After speaking briefly on the phone with my new editor, I immediately headed off on a two-week vacation to Peru and Bolivia, which my wife and I had planned some months before. (Needless to say, I was very glad to get an offer before our departure.)

On November 17, I received a five-page editorial letter from my editor, outlining various changes and revisions, mostly minor, that he wanted to see in the manuscript. I’m currently finishing up this revised draft, which I’m scheduled to deliver to NAL by the middle of next week. After that, I’m flying to New York, where I’ll finally have a chance to meet my editor in person, and hopefully get a better sense of what happens next. Stay tuned!

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

What I’m reading this week

leave a comment »

Mailer by Peter Manso. Purchased for $2.65 at the Borders on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (It’s closing in January, so everything is marked down 20% or more.) I’d devoured this book growing up—it’s an oral biography with a lot of gossip—but hadn’t seen the revised edition, with its incredibly vitriolic afterword by Manso. His disillusionment with the last two decades of Mailer’s career isn’t hard to understand, but his tone of condescension and bitterness toward everyone involved—including Mailer’s wife and kids—makes it difficult to take him seriously. Still, this is a mostly fine book that I’m glad to have in my library again.

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. Research for my second novel, which I’m scheduled to deliver in September.

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I recently realized that I could put together a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes strips for only $24 by shopping the bargain bin at Better World Books (easily the best online used bookstore around), so I snatched them up right away. This collection, which came out in 1992, probably represents the strip’s creative peak.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. This is the most useful recent guide I’ve seen on the publishing process, with hundreds of pages devoted to what happens after you sign your book contract. (The only thing missing, as far as I can tell, is a guide to writer’s taxes.) Not to be confused with The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth, which is the first thing that came up when I searched for it on Amazon. (Although that looks pretty interesting, too.)

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 8:05 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day, Writing

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: