Category Archives: Craft

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

the fetish object

Most romance has explicit sex in it, but where “explicit” sounds – I don’t know, naughty? sexy? breathless? the sheer volume actually strips sex of its appeal. Nowadays when I read about a hero sucking a heroine’s nipple, it’s as bland as drinking milk. (Wait – milk is delicious.) It doesn’t move me in the slightest.

Nipples are quite amazing in real life. Nipples, as a body part to be checked off some foreplay list – not so amazing.

Some writers, of course, can make the same sex acts feel new and thrilling and touch some nerve of recognition. I just read The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas – a seriously freaking amazing book – and she has this particular superpower. For the rest of us, I think we should take a step away from the naked human body and look at other ways to bring sex in.

A fetish object is something that’s imbued with power – often power displaced from something else. A sexual fetish object is something that’s imbued with sexual power, again often displaced from the more common, everyday fetishisation of the body (although it can itself be a body part, of course). According to Freud, a fetish object is the mother’s castrated penis so that dudes don’t have to deal with vaginas or something.

In the narrative examples I’m thinking of, the fetish object has some sexual power for the characters, but acts far more strongly on the reader. The sexual narrative that’s drawing the reader in is redirected through this object, which makes it more powerful than if it had remained in the everyday body.

Here are the ways this method’s really worked for me as a reader:

The first is from Ember by Bettie Sharp. The story is a retelling of Cinderella, where Cinderella is Ember, the wicked witch and her sisters and stepmother are courtesans, dearly loved by her. Prince Charming has been cursed/blessed that all who see him love him. The first time Ember sees him is at a parade when she’s nineteen. She’s destroyed by lust. Charming smiles and throws coins into the crowd that are stamped with his likeness; Ember finds one between two cobblestones once he’s passed.

His profile winked sunlight at me from the silver surface of the coin. I raised it to my lips and kissed his likeness’s metal cheek. Licked it. I slid the coin into my mouth, tasting the tannic flavour of his glove above the metal and beneath the grime.

With the silver likeness of the prince clamped between my lips, I turned and hurried back inside. I could not close the door fast enough to suit the drumbeat of desire in my blood. I hadn’t the patience to climb to my chamber and dream of him in private. Indeed, I barely managed to squeeze into a broom closet and shut the door before my hands were pulling up my skirts and parting the hot, slick folds of my sex.

I ran my tongue across his likeness on the coin as I thought of him. I thought of his eyes on me, his hands on me. I imagined the sublime joys of his touch, the taste of his skin, the feel of his cock between my lips.

She goes on to imagine dying from the force of having her maidenhead taken, and him weeping over her because he’ll never love another. (She gives the reader permission to laugh at her youthful fantasies.)

As sad as it is to admit it, I must tell you this melodramatic imagining was the thought that gave me my first taste of womanly pleasure. My body seized, climaxing with a ferocity that made me stumble to the floor. I gasped for air, only to feel the cold bite of the silver coin lodging in my throat.

I panicked, coughing and gagging, trying to force a decent breath around the silver barrier imprinted with the prince’s face. My death flashed before my eyes and in this scenario, I was not a noble virgin sacrifice, but a silly girl, crumpled on the floor of a broom closet with her skirts rumpled and her hands stinking of sex.

There are a couple of reasons this worked so well for me that it’s stuck in my mind ever since. The prince’s curse has already powerfully disrupted the sexual narrative. Ember doesn’t look at him and feel a natural response which she can choose to act on or not; his sexuality is a force that makes objects of everyone who sees him – it is already displaced.

This sexual power is then concentrated in one small object: the coin. For me as a reader, there’s something so much more unexpected and exciting about Ember pressing her tongue against a likeness of his face and experiencing the full force of her desire, than if she’d had access to his person.

Maybe it’s because he can be fully “objectified” – it’s a purely sexual transaction. Charming is present, but the scene isn’t really about him. There’s something powerful about the coin generating her florid sexual fantasy – and then choking her at its climax, which utterly changes how she perceives herself in that moment. Both feel sexual to me, the arousal and the shame.

Probably the crux of why the coin works for me, actually, is that it means Charming is so freaking hot an inanimate imprint is enough to bring Ember to her knees. Is that bad?

The second example comes from a real source: the diaries of Maud Rittenhouse in the late 19th century. I haven’t read her diaries in full, just Jodie McAlister’s wonderful recaps at Momentum Moonlight. Maud chronicles her romantic adventures and disasters and refuses to let romance define her. Her thoughts are almost hypnotically charming.

In the penultimate volume she’s just met Earl Mayne who – well, in her own words:

Mr Mayne. Everybody in town knew him but me. He is deliciously bright and well read and talks like a fairy story set to music…

He’s younger than her and you get the feeling he’s a bit rough around the edges. Her infatuation burns up the page, and then there’s this:

Well and the Adorable came, and dined with us, and oh! oh!! he eats with his knife. Positively it gave me a queer feeling way into my hair. I was so afraid he’d cut his lovely mouth or jam one of his white teeth. His knife! The “one altogether lovely”, eating with his knife! I know he must have some real good scientific reason for doing it, but it made me look the other way. How can such an Adonis do anything so plebeian even with reason.

This moment gets at me viscerally the way any amount of “he’s so wonderful” doesn’t. She’s repulsed by him eating with the knife, but as a reader I feel the depth of her sexual attraction within her repulsion. Like Ember’s shame on swallowing the coin, the shame and fascination around this object feels decidedly sexual.

His “lovely mouth” feels so much more significant when it’s threatened by his knife.

It also happens to be one of my favourite romantic mechanisms: his action breaks the social mould through which she perceives everybody and everything. This sets off an overwhelming sensation in her that she doesn’t know how to interpret. She interprets it as embarrassment; I don’t.

The last example is from The Luckiest Lady in London. My favourite part of this book was how explicitly honest the hero and heroine were with each other – and how that didn’t leech the tension at all. It’s an electrifying, exciting kind of honesty.

But – ahem. Before I get carried away fangirling all over the place, I’ll get back to my point. Felix has asked Louisa to be his mistress, and they’re playing a kind of game of chicken with their attraction and what they each want. In this scene they’re alone in a carriage.

He lifted his straight rod of a walking stick and, holding it near the base, set its handle on her lap, a frightfully intimate, invasive gesture that made flame leap through her.

The terrible thing was, the more he revealed himself to be dangerous and warped, the more she fell under his spell. And the more she fell under his spell, the freer he felt to reveal even more of his true nature.

His eyes met hers again. “Let me give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”

But he couldn’t. Or at least, he wouldn’t.

For she could no longer be satisfied with an expensive telescope, an exemplary spinsterhood, or his sure-to-be-magnificent body – or even all three together.

She was a woman in love and she wanted nothing less than his unscrupulous and very possibly unprincipled heart, proffered to her in slavish devotion.

She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand. At first she thought it was but a knob made of heavy, smooth-grained ebony, but as she traced its curve with her hand, she looked down and realized that the handle was actually in the shape of the head of a black jaguar.

“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.

She was *caressing* the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.

“You like it?”

They throw some double entendres back and forth and get extremely lustful about each other. Then:

…she raised the handle of his walking stick, leaned forward, and kissed it on the tip.

“You make me do such unspeakable things,” she murmured, looking at the jaguar’s head.

Slowly, he pulled the stick from her grasp. He examined the handle closely, then glanced back at her, his gaze heated yet inscrutable.

The walking stick is quite obviously standing in for his man bits in this scene, but that’s not where I think the sexiness of it comes from. In fact, I would find it even sexier if the parallel weren’t drawn at all.

What I love is the “intimate, invasive gesture,” and the “part of himself he’d chosen to extend to her”. It’s in his character that he wouldn’t just give himself over to her, so instead he does something he thinks will be safe – he touches her with an inanimate object. But she makes that object part of him, and so he can’t remain unaffected by her touch. It becomes incredibly exposing.

Gah, it’s awesome.

This method is more about the reader than it is about the characters themselves. I’ve become somewhat desensitised to sex as a reader, but diverting it through an object makes me feel it again – it becomes unexpected, a pleasure.

It also happens to be a powerful tool for writers; it means we can bring sex into any scene, without being explicit. If Maud were a romance heroine, watching her hero eat from a knife, I would believe her when she kissed him later.

what I learnt about writing from judging the VPA

I had the great fortune of winning the Valerie Parv Award in 2010, and this year I was finally able to give a bit back by judging contest entries.

I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about writing in a short period of time, just by reading three very different synopses and excerpts. It’s always easier to see other people’s writing clearly, and I’m grateful for what this has taught me about my own writing. I’m going to share very general insights, which don’t apply specifically to any one entry.

Synopsis

Synopses are notoriously difficult to write. How do you condense a whole story down to a couple of pages, all the while ensuring you don’t leave anything important out?

I read the contest synopses not to critique them, but simply as a reader wanting to understand the story as clearly as possible. I think because of this I picked up on one problem in all of the synopses – and I’m absolutely certain this has been my own problem as well: lack of specific detail.

In trying to condense the story down – or sometimes in an attempt to build suspense – we write about plot points in general terms. E.g. “She makes a plan to find out more about him.”

We feel like it’s saving space to be general and brief, but in fact what it does is muddy the sense of story. Whenever I came across a statement like this I found myself feeling frustrated at being somehow locked out of the story. It can also create confusion later in the synopsis. E.g. if the heroine’s plan to find out more about the hero is to break into his apartment and go through his things, there might be a statement later in the synopsis that’s something like, “After he finds out she broke into his house…”, which will make no sense to me as a reader. Even general statements later on such as “When her plan fails” simply add to the confusion, as I still don’t even know what her plan is.

Instead of “She makes a plan to find out more about him,” I could write, “She decides to find out more about him by breaking into his flat.” It takes up slightly more space on the page, but the reader will remain clearly in the story – and I suspect it will save words later in the synopsis when the writer has something concrete to refer back to.

Observations on writing

In every excerpt I read, the author had created two interesting characters from very different worlds and a premise that set up believable conflict that I wanted to see play out between them. All I wanted was to watch the characters interacting with each other in a scene, while their personal differences and opposing goals played out. For me, that is where chemistry sparks between characters – chemistry that doesn’t immediately have to be lust, but will more believably become lust.

In every excerpt, the author began with their excellent premise and characters and then added conflict. It mostly took that classic romance form of “I hate you, I want to bone you, you annoy me, but look at your biceps”.

There’s a very good reason the authors did this – and I know I relied on this form of conflict in my YA romance more than I should have. It’s easier to keep two characters from falling in love if they spend most of their time telling themselves they can’t stand each other. It also creates emotional chemistry between them that can be transformed into love later on. It gives you something to root for: you want them to overcome their aversion; you want to watch them change their minds.

The problem is that I’m not invested in two characters finding each other attractive but annoying. What I’m invested in is seeing these two very different people collide. What’s the point of creating interesting characters, otherwise?

It became so clear to me that the authors had built these characters and premise as a kind of canvas to write the story on. I wanted the characters and premise to be the story. I wanted to watch interest spark reluctantly inside an awful conversation. Or spark immediately and irrationally – and then run into the wall of reality.

I think it’s scary to put that much belief in our characters and premise, that we’ll simply put them in a scene together, let them be wholly themselves (even in the ways they act out) and let the story unfold. It’s less scary to add emotion and conflict, on top of what’s already there.

Which brings me to the biggest, scariest realisation I had while reading the excerpts. I know this is in large part formed by my own experience writing Untamed, but I’ve seen many writers I admire go through the same process, and witnessed the results.

The excerpts felt like they were at the stage my MS was at when I submitted it to the Award, i.e. a first draft that’s had a lot of work put into it. I was convinced, when I entered the Award, that my MS was almost complete. I just had a bit more work to do – another couple of read-throughs, some more edits. But I felt close.

I wasn’t.

What I had was an excellent place to start. I had the concept of a book, and the beginning of characters. I spent the whole year of my mentorship pulling the first draft apart, turning everything inside out – finding the heart of the story I really wanted to tell. And then at the end of the year I threw it all out and started again.

Everyone’s process is different, so hopefully you’ll never throw out as many words as I did. But I’ve seen meticulous writers go through this same process at 30,000 words, or in the world-building, planning process.

I wanted to say to the authors whose excerpts I read: Be proud of this wonderful story you’ve produced. Now break it apart, turn it inside out, dig around until your characters feel almost unrecognisable to you. Dare to turn this massive plot point completely on its head, simply because when you do it makes you go all zingy.

And I knew how it would feel to hear that feedback, because I knew each of those authors must feel so close to finishing, like I once did.

narrative, backwards

My favourite literary device is the Rosetta Stone moment: the piece of information that illuminates the story, backwards. You realise there has been a second narrative running under the first the whole time, and while you haven’t consciously been reading it, part of your brain has been picking up the cues, so that when that last piece of information clicks into place you don’t have to laboriously piece the whole thing together – all it needs is illumination.

I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and while the tone of the film wasn’t so much my thing, it had a perfect, spine-tingling Rosetta Stone moment. I’m going to go through how it was done, complete with spoilers. It was by far the best part of the film, so if you intend to watch it, don’t read on!

The sub-narrative is all about Charlie’s relationship with his Aunt Helen. These are all the cues we’re given throughout the film:

Charlie is a troubled kid who has been in hospital. He’s going to high school for the first time, and he wishes he could talk to his Aunt Helen. She would understand.

Later, he remembers his Aunt Helen coming home to their house, with a Welcome Home banner and everything. She looks up at him, on the stairs, and they share a smile. They are special to each other.

When he sees his older sister’s boyfriend hitting her, he tries to intervene. She tells him not to get involved. “How could you,” he says, “after Aunt Helen?”

He goes to sit in the park, and remembers being there at Christmas with Aunt Helen. The pathway was lit up with lanterns, and she bent down and told him it was Santa’s runway. She told him to stay just where he was, while she went and got his birthday present.

Charlie loves a girl called Sam. She throws a Christmas party just for their close friends. Charlie gives her an old record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ and afterwards they sit on her bed together. She asks if he’s ever kissed anyone, and he shakes his head, bashful. “What about your first kiss?” he asks. “I was eleven,” she says. “His name was Robert. He used to come over to the house all the time.” “Was he your first boyfriend?” “He way my – he was my dad’s boss.” Charlie, who is so innocent and naïve, listens without judgement, but we see it hit him. Sam doesn’t know if she can become more than she is – get into a good school, make something of herself. Charlie tells her she can. “My aunt,” he says, “had that same thing done to her. And she turned her life around.” “She must have been great.” “She was my favourite person in the world,” Charlie says, “until now.” Then Sam tells Charlie she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him, and she kisses him.

While they’re kissing, Charlie strokes Sam’s back, down to her bottom. He stops. She asks if everything’s okay, and he says it is, and they keep kissing.

Later, Charlie remembers more of that Christmas scene from his childhood: Aunt Helen tells him to stay where he is while she goes to get his birthday present. She whispers in his ear, “It’ll be our little secret.” We see her driving, a record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ on the passenger seat. A truck hits her car, straight into the drivers side.

Charlie starts going out with the wrong girl, and he does the wrong thing. His friends – the first real friends he’s ever belonged to – disown him. His mental state deteriorates. He has no-one to talk to. He’s seeing things again. He’s at home alone, and he can’t stop seeing things.

He’s back kissing Sam on her bed, and his hand slides down her back, to her bottom. He’s remembering a hand touching his leg that way, and he’s a small boy, and the hand belongs to his Aunt Helen. She’s giving him that special you-and-me smile. He remembers finding her at the kitchen table, crying, and touching the long scars on her wrist. Then he’s back where she’s touching him, and whispering that they shouldn’t wake his sister, who’s asleep on the rug. He can’t stop thinking: What if it’s his fault she died, because he wanted her to die?

Charlie ends up in hospital again, and we never see it onscreen, but he finally tells someone what his aunt did to him.

Every memory leading up to the revelation is recast. Everything she said to him, every way she looked at him. His wilful innocence in that conversation with Sam. The way he can’t own his own experience.

Casting their relationship as special and important gives this sub-narrative so much more power than if it had just been couched in mystery. There’s a deep emotional truth in Charlie processing it that way. It’s also impressive from a storytelling stand-point, because there were enough cues that something wasn’t right, that it made complete, stunning sense when the truth came out. The way Charlie deals with Sam’s story of abuse, and the way he reacts to physical intimacy create an emotional resonance for his own experience, once it comes out. We’ve actually been reading that story the whole time, just without realising it.

It’s clear to us that Charlie loves and misses Aunt Helen, and that she was incredibly important to him. But we instinctively feel some piece of information missing from the core of their relationship: What binds them so tightly together? There’s an element of obsession about how he always thinks of her that is low-level creepy, but easy to dismiss because the narrative is telling you this was a good, special relationship.

There are more obvious cues, such as her saying, “This will be our little secret.” That phrase is so coded as abusive that I even thought of abuse outright at that moment, and then uneasily dismissed it.

Charlie’s denial recasts their relationship into something impossible. As his vision of things sits more and more uneasily alongside reality we begin to see how it is impossible.

There’s a powerful narrative lesson here. He doesn’t express blank denial, or bottled up rage. He feels something that’s emotionally true, the way dream logic is true, and it’s heartbreaking.

body/carcass

Sex scenes can be difficult to write. Probably the most ubiquitous piece of writing advice is: Make the sex further the characters. That is, have something emotional at stake between them. Have it develop and surprise and change them the way a conversation might.

That advice highlights for me that a romance is really two stories happening side-by-side: The love story of the body, and the love story of the mind. And if you get a really good writer it’s impossible to unwind one from the other.

I know I quoted this recently, but it’s so pertinent I have to quote it again. When Rochester is desperate to make Jane stay, and she won’t, he clutches at her and says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Bodies are alive. Bodies are dying, breath by breath.

I first started thinking about what a morbid thing this can be – this attempt to get at what’s inside the organic, breathing, dying cage – when I was reading KA Mitchell. I’d just read a medic hero followed by a surgeon hero. Because of their professions they come across a lot of physical trauma, which KA Mitchell doesn’t try to separate in the text from sex – physical penetration, raised heartbeat, blood and flesh.

In No Souvenirs Kim is a surgeon and his lover Shane undergoes severe physical trauma:

And even when the paddles and the hypo brought back the flutter of life, Kim couldn’t shake off that feeling like the emptiness was just waiting for another chance. It was there in every long space between the electric contractions of Shane’s cardiac tissue. Nothing as sure as the knowledge that they were all nothing but animated meat just waiting for the power to go out.

Then later:

At every stroke of Kim’s hands, the muscles under Shane’s wet skin rippled with that vital current, warm and alive. Kim couldn’t erase the memory of Shane cold and still on that reef, of the clammy, pale chest when he’d ripped open Shane’s wet suit to get the paddles on bare skin, but he could have this one to go with it, Shane’s heart pounding hard against Kim’s palm, breath deep and strong as he fisted Shane’s cock.

The body is how we can come close and express love, and the body is the thing that will betray our love by dying.

   

These images from Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty’s 1746 “Anatomical Study” perfectly capture the body as a romantic object that is also a piece of flesh.

There was a study done last year on how arousal “makes everything less disgusting”. For my money, sex scenes could do with fewer perfect bodies, and more living/dying flesh made wondrous by love, by the urgent desire to keep on being – and by a healthy dose of lust.

one powerful motif

ANNA

Sherry Thomas appears on all my recommendation lists, and the one word I come back to again and again to describe her writing is “charming”. It’s woefully inadequate. There’s an ineffable quality to Sherry’s writing – it’s unlike anyone else, utterly unique. Beginning one of her novels is always, for me, like being told a fairytale as a child. A magical set of characters who draw you into a world that is lit up from the inside.

Her stories are pure emotion. Her heroes feel deeply, sympathetically human, even when they are supernaturally gorgeous, titled, clever, what-have-you. Her heroines are often not as young as they used to be (which is true of everyone of course *g*) and are suffused with a kind of nostalgia for all that has passed in exchange for hard-won wisdom and maturity.

It’s incredibly exciting for me to have Sherry on the blog – and I feel like her post makes a chip in understanding what gives her writing that quality I simply cannot name.

***

SHERRY

When I received Anna’s invitation to participate in the celebration of her blog’s face-lift by contributing an article, I asked her if there is anything she’d like me to write about. And this was her reply:

There is something specific I keep coming back to when I think about your writing, and I hope it’s something you feel you can easily write about. Even though Ravishing the Heiress was an emotional read in all sorts of ways, what stuck with me was Alice [the dormouse]. It was very straightforward imagery – Alice stood in for Fitz’s first love. But that didn’t make it any less powerful, or wonderful to read. I think its charm and power was probably IN its simplicity – and in how deeply you followed through on it, down to the taxidermied mouse representing Fitz’s mistaken feelings. (I would never have thought a boy soliloquising to his dead mouse could make me cry, but it did!) 

So I’d love to hear you talk about how that part of the story came about – did you plan it that way, or did it happen of its own accord? How does imagery enrich a story, and how do you pull forward parts of your story to represent the larger, deeper and altogether more complex emotional story?

It is something of a two-part subject. But as it so happens, last month I wrote about the first half of it, the deployment of strong details to evoke strong emotions, at Writers in the Storm.

If you have time, I recommend you read that post first. But if you don’t, here is the short takeaway: You can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions. It’s not the detail themselves that matter, but the world, the history, the characters you build around it. And you enter that state of emotions via the exactitude and specificity of details.

For example, Anna, in her request, had mentioned Alice the dormouse, from my book Ravishing the Heiress. Why was there a dormouse in the story? Well, when I started writing Ravishing the Heiress, I’d just finished the first full draft of The Burning Sky, my young adult fantasy, a reverse-Harry Potter story about adolescent mages plotting to overthrow the dark lord from a muggle school. The muggle school in question happens to be Eton College—yes, of course there is a girl passing herself off as a boy—and so I’d read quite a bit about the school and the life of the students during the 1880s.

And one of the things I’d learned was that there were hawkers who catered specifically to the student population at Eton, and at least one of whom sold dormice as pets. So why not have the hero’s beloved—the one he doesn’t get to marry—give him a dormouse as a present, and as a symbol of their passionate feelings for each other?

It’s not a bad detail. And it’s certainly an emotional one. But just as I never bother with a detail unless I can connect it to the larger emotions of the story, once I have such a detail, I’m never content with using it only once.

Years ago, when the great Judith Ivory was still actively writing, I went to Dallas to listen to her speak at a conference. During her workshop, she mentioned a story. When the hero and the heroine first meet, she is wearing the scarf. They would be separated for much of the book, so whenever the author wants to remind the readers that the hero is still very much in love with the heroine, she’d have him either have his eyes caught by a flash of something red while he’s walking down the street and whip around to see who is the wearer or have him take out the scarf from where it is stored to look at it.

I very rarely remember specific writing advice, but the way Ms. Ivory explained the scarf just made so much sense. You pick your meaningful detail—anything will do. Now you work consciously at it, weaving it into the fabric of the story and repeating it at crucial moments. And voila, suddenly you have a lovely emotional refrain that runs through your narrative.

For example, in Skyfall, [beginning possible spoiler] the latest Bond flick, the first time Bond and M meet face to face, he notices an ugly dog figurine on her desk. In the middle of the movie, the dog appears again, the only thing to survive her office after an attack. With these meaningful repetitions, the ugly dog figurine comes to stand for M. So that by the end of the movie, when the dog figurine is given to Bond, he understands the significance of the gesture and so do we the moviegoers. [End possible spoiler.]

Another example. In my book His at Night, the heroine is a young lady who lives under a tyrannical uncle. On the third round of revisions, still largely dissatisfied with the book, I decided the story needed far deeper emotions. And lo, I see that in the beginning of the book, my heroine is reading a travelogue about Capri, dreaming of being there and being free.

Why Capri? Because for a different book, I’d looked up Capri and had some research material lying around.

So in itself, Capri doesn’t have any significance. But I decided to make it significant to my character. Every time she is particularly lonely or upset, she reaches for the guidebook and imagines herself upon the island’s rocky shores. Capri, in other words, comes to stand for all her hopes and dreams.

When the hero has a nightmare, she cradles him and tells him about her Capri, about what keeps her nightmares at bay. And eventually, when the hero messes up—don’t they always—and needs to beg for her forgiveness, he finds that book on Capri she loves so much, memorizes the entire section, and recites it back to her, to let her know that he might have acted like a jackass, but he does understand her hopes and dreams and they are infinitely important to him.

So just to recap, pick something, anything that is significant to one or both of your lead characters. What makes it important to readers is the iteration.

(A slight corollary: We all know that the amount of real estate a character or an event receives in a book more or less correlates to their importance. What is sometimes left unsaid is that if any element is important to a story, it should be introduced early on. That is particularly true when you are trying to create a motif. Whatever details/symbols you plan to use, introduce them early. So that you have time to develop them, to make your readers understand their significance.)

And of course, my hearty congratulations to Anna, for the fabulous new look of this blog.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

musical notes and brush strokes

ANNA

Another teacher who contributed a huge amount to me while I was studying Professional Writing is Toni Jordan.

I was the only romance writer in my first year, and I had a very literary teacher. She didn’t understand what I was doing. I learned a huge amount from her, because she critiqued my writing like a piece of literary writing, but the experience almost snuffed out my voice completely.

Over the summer I went right back to why I write romance, and let myself be passionate and verbose. I also won a mentorship with Valerie Parv and started a complete rewrite of My Lady Untamed. Then I started second year, and Toni was my teacher. She got it. She understood romance convention. She was hugely encouraging, and it made all the difference in the world to have that support.

She is a wonderful teacher. She has made it her business to understand any genre a student might write in. She also doesn’t pull her punches. I remember one note on a chapter I’d workshopped that just said, This line is appalling! (And to be fair, it had a metaphor about a deep, subterranean cave of unshed tears.)

I am delighted to have her on the blog.

***

TONI

Some days, when I head off to take my class, teaching seems like the worst idea in the world. I’m always rushing, always late. My dog gives me a foul look. God knows what you do outside all day, and who you’re sniffing. And, worst of all, my own work sits there on the screen, curser flashing, characters sitting around moping and waiting for me to come back and tell them what to do.

Five minutes into the class, however, that’s all forgotten. It’s not just because of the students, most of whom are wonderful (but few of whom are as wonderful as Anna). It’s because I believe in teaching creative writing.

Creative writing classes sometimes get bad press, I know. Teachers and students are characterised as overprivileged dilettantes oversharing their thinly veiled memoirs while they bang on about why the publishing world is blind to their genius. That’s just not been my experience. Mostly I feel blessed to be surrounded by a roomful of people of varying ages and backgrounds and cultures, all of whom are united by a simple love of words and stories. And I love watching their writing improve over the year.

I believe that there are two distinct skills involved in fiction writing: the ‘art’, and the ‘craft’. Let me be clear: I have no idea where the ‘art’ part comes from, or how to control it, or how to make it better. If I did, I would be better able to control my own process and I’d be a much better novelist. I would have won the Miles Franklin by now. I have no idea how to teach where characters come from or how to make readers care about them or where ideas come from or what makes a novel change someone’s world or how does someone come up with the idea to put the duke in a frock. The ‘art’ in a symphony or in a painting–in my view, this can’t be taught.

What can be taught is musical notes and brush strokes. This is the ‘craft’ part. What I can teach is how good dialogue works, why some plots are more fulfilling than others. I can try to teach someone why one sentence is beautiful and another isn’t (although a surprising number of people can’t feel this) and why one sentence is good while another is bad, and how a sentence should function. I can introduce emerging writers to wonderful authors they’ve never read before. This is terribly important, because it’s only when you read something you deeply admire, something that moves you and makes you almost gasp, and then compare your own work beside it, that you can begin to understand how you need to improve. (The students I feel most sorry for are, in fact, the few who are haughtily dismissive of the genius examples I bring to class. They can’t see real beauty, and that’s why they are so overconfident in their own ability. This is classic Dunning–Kruger effect.)

Mostly, though, I love teaching creative writing because I know it improves the writing of students. I met Anna when I taught her in a class called Novel 2, in RMIT’s Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. Just a few years earlier, in 2005, I was a student in that same class. The manuscript I was working on started its life with the working title of The Woman Who Loved Numbers. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I enrolled in that course. My first degree was in science and I’d worked for seven years as a protein chemist before drifting into regularly affairs, and then sales and marketing. I’d enrolled with the intention of starting my own technical writing business, writing drug dossiers and new chemical entity search documents for pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. I chose the novel subject as a bit of fun, a nod to my decades of voracious fiction reading.

The Woman Who Loved Numbers was published in Australia in 2008, under its new title, Addition. Since then, it’s been published in 16 countries and 12 languages, and the film script is at final draft stage (adapted by a clever and funny screenwriter in New York).

I’ve since written two other novels, and each one has been a thrill, but equally as exciting is when a student’s manuscript is published. When a student of mine has a book published–well, I feel fantastic. I ring my husband and meet him after work for a celebratory G&T. I imagine it’s a feeling not unlike parental pride. I can’t wait to raise a quiet glass to My Lady Untamed.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

writing an ordinary world

ANNA

Nelika McDonald is another friend from my writing school days who has given me endless support and inspiration as a writer. We first became friends when she showed her brand-new engagement ring off to me, because she “knew I would understand”. (I was never shy about my romantic soul.)

In our second and final year a couple of us were asked to show our writing to an editor at Pan Macmillan. Nelika was not only brave enough to actually do so – she sold her young adult novel on a couple of chapters. When you read her post you will begin to understand why her editor became addicted to her voice in such a short space of time.

The novel will be published next year.

When I read her most recent draft, I couldn’t help thinking of her writing like a cloth she had woven, detail by detail. This cloth is an exceptionally beautiful, rich thing, that perhaps needs to be trimmed a little here, taken in a little there, but is complete in itself. (This feels to me like quite a daggy, writerly description, but I can’t think of it any other way.)

She is, without hesitation, a writer to watch out for.

***

NELIKA

When I read, I want to feel like I am being given an access-all-areas pass to another world.

I want immersion, chin-deep. And for this to happen, I need to be able to believe in the world written on the pages. Not believe in the literal sense, but in the sense of buying into the world I am reading about. I want to have a teenage crush on the world I’m reading; I want to find every aspect of it fascinating. I want the worlds I read to be compositions for whole orchestras, with a scope and magnitude and richness and fullness that astound me. I’m talking about suspension of disbelief, but of that particular variety when the world you are reading about is based in your own, but is not your own. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about writing in general contemporary fiction and not writing that is intentionally set in a different world, time period or dimension. I think a whole other set of rules comes into play for world-building in genre fiction, and I don’t really feel like I have the qualifications to discuss that particular talent. However, if you want an example, read anything Anna has ever written. The lady is a pro. Probably some of what I’m going to talk about applies along the whole fiction spectrum, but I only really write and read contemporary fiction set in this ordinary world, so that’s my frame of reference.

I think this is about why we read what we do.

For me, (and I think this is a truly individual thing) reading is about trying to comprehend my world. In everything I read, I’m looking for some sort of lesson to take away about human behaviour, or the way the world works. Even if the story I am reading is set in a world vastly different from the one I inhabit, I am still looking for something that holds true across them both. I think this is usually subconscious. What I’m seeking is not an overt lesson, because I don’t want to be preached to or patronised, but I do want to learn something, and feel enriched somehow. But not enriched like that milk with extra calcium, where they write about it in bold caps on the label with exclamation marks. I want to not know what I’ve learnt until later, if at all. I also want to be entertained, and delight in the prose, and marvel at the construction of the story and be surprised and freaking awed at the same time, by the way. I’m pretty demanding. But, so I should be. Getting prosaic for a minute, books exist in a marketplace like anything else, and healthy competition can foster a higher standard of product, if the demand is there for it.

Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking about how it is that writers create believable worlds, worlds that are multi-dimensional, complex and layered, but still entirely ordinary, and not fantastical or farcical. What do they need to give us to make us buy into these worlds, and how much should they tell us to establish the parameters of it without dictating its every boundary? Are there specific tricks or techniques that they use to do this?

As a reader, I’m a voyeur. I want to look through a window and spy on something. But this is just a peep show- it’s more exciting if I can’t see it all. I told you I was demanding! So, say I’m looking into a room. It’s a good view, and I can see the whole room. But that isn’t enough. I want to believe that if I went through the doorway in that room, I would find myself in a hallway, from which other rooms branched off. I want to be able to imagine what’s in those rooms too. Maybe one has a door that you need to lift up as you open it, and inside there is a small bed made of pine with stickers all over the headboard, and in the wardrobe there is a green tin of treasures with a scarecrow on it. Behind the chest of drawers, a rock shaped like a crescent moon with a face drawn on it in crayon is gathering dust, a little coat of grey snowballed around it. Down the hall there is another room with another small bed, but this one is stripped bare, and the wardrobe stands empty, doors ajar. There is a coin and the lid of a pen on the bedside table. The only decoration is a homemade dream-catcher hanging from the windowsill, with a cobweb made of matchsticks and bits of foil and cut up plastic straws dangling down from it.

In the best writing I’ve read, the author hasn’t given too many details, but the ones they have given are important. They allowed me to extrapolate and fill in the blanks myself. For instance, maybe they told me that in one bedroom in this house, the mother’s room, there is a photo of a little girl with a candle beside it and some rosary beads. Then, having deduced that a little girl has died, I could decide what was in her room by myself. This is where writing a believable world intersects with writing a believable character. The details given about a character can inform the reader’s view of their world, and vice-versa. Maybe, from what I know of the mother, I can decide if she would keep her little girl’s room as a shrine, preserved exactly how it was on the day her daughter died, or pack it up and lock the door. That’s a whole other post, though. The important thing is that, as a reader, I think there are other rooms at all.

One way to talk about this idea of a believable written world is with the idea of verisimilitude. This is probably the fanciest word I know. And, in my bastardised, simplified comprehension of it, all it means is narrative authority. And that is how I prefer to think of it. For me, the word authority conveys an aspect that I think is important- confidence. I think the writer needs to feel like he or she has the ability to write the world that they do, but also that they are qualified to write it, maybe even have some sort of imperative to write it. And this confidence makes the reader believe in it. In the book I’m currently working on/being strangled by, the setting is a fictional town called Banville. Banville is loosely based on a mash-up of a few places I have visited, in a few different countries. But when I write Banville, I try and write it like I’ve lived there my whole life. Partly, this is because I can’t expect readers to believe in the plausibility of Banville if I don’t. But more so, it is because I want them to believe in my characters, as they exist in Banville, and be captivated by and invest in my whole plot and book, accordingly. I feel like these things are a long, linked chain, and if one link is broken the chain becomes weak. Really weak. Like, if it was holding up a swing, you would look at how rusty and fragile it seemed and decide to force your child to pretend to enjoy drawing in the dirt with a stick instead.

For an example of confidence in writing, I nominate Rose Tremain. I read The Road Home a little while ago, and there was something so incredibly assured about it that I got really depressed and complained to Anna that I felt like that sort of assurance can only come with writing for years and years and I would just have to slog on for another twenty years before I got there and even then there was no guarantee I could attain that level of masterful skill, so what was the point? And then we had excellent sandwiches and I felt better again.

Another way I have noticed a writer build a believable, ordinary world is by writing as though the reader is viewing this world at a certain point in time, but it has actually existed for much longer. This sounds obvious, but it was kind of a revelation to me. I think it was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, and I can’t remember the exact passage, but it was something about how someone had moved a shovel and it had been there for so long that there was a patch of dead grass underneath it. Or if we return to the house I talked about earlier, this might involve talking about the people who had lived there before the current characters. About how one old man who lived there painted the pantry such a vile acidic green that you can still see it on the skirting boards underneath the white that’s there now, if you look closely.

An extension of this technique is through language use. Once I thought about the passage in which the shovel was moved, I noticed that Barbara Kingsolver often used this technique, to great effect- a character’s coat was slung over the back of a chair instead of on a hook where it ‘usually’ hung, or she found a single earring that had been missing ‘for a long time’. For so long, in fact, that she had bought similar earrings to try and replace them, but they were ‘never’ quite the right size/shape/length. The use of terms like ‘used to’ or ‘usually’ imply that there is a before and after in this world. It has existed, and will continue to exist, beyond the point in time you are reading about.

Another technique she uses (still with Ms Kingsolver here, fangirl much?) is to anchor the world she writes about to biology. Barbara Kingsolver is a scientist, so it makes sense that this informs her work, but the way she applies science to her narratives are awesome.  Sometimes science is central and sometimes more peripheral to the story, but she always reminds the reader that the world she writes is tethered to the universe by the laws of science- everything is in a cycle. Plants grow, blossom and die, seasons change, the weather is terrible or wonderful or strange. Animals and people grow, blossom and die, too. Her characters exist in and engage with the natural world, because the natural world exists in their world. They are just a microcosm. Like babushka dolls- her worlds are nestled inside greater ones.

There are so many other techniques that fit into this discussion, like self-referential writing and wanky postmodern stuff about breaking the fourth wall and so on, but I don’t want to sully Anna’s beautiful new blog with all of that, much as I secretly love it. So that will do for now. This has been a pretty great exercise in clarifying my thoughts and learning from the masters, and it’s an absolute honour to be featured alongside so many crazy-talented writers. Thanks Anna! x

tension

ANNA

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while will have noticed I talk about Cat a lot. (It’s usually when I’m struggling though an idea and she’s said something illuminating.) She is my writing buddy and crit partner extraordinaire, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

We met in a poetry class at uni. Cat thought much more of my poems than I did, and her terse, hilarious, clever poetry wasn’t what I’d expected this very friendly woman to write. We both gave up poetry, which is likely a good thing.

She was the first person to read the first draft of My Lady Untamed, back when it was called The Three Loves of Miss Beatrice Sutherland and Miss Beatrice Sutherland was kind of a snivelling doormat. She encouraged me, even then. And then she introduced me to Lymond.

These days we write together three days a week, 10-5. We know each other’s work inside-out, and have gotten pretty damn good at feeling out when our brainstorming is sparking something and when the other person’s just drawing a blank. Our coffee breaks are full of writing conversation; our particular loves are Dunnett and Vampire Diaries.

Cat published the first two books of Captive Prince as an online serial (it’s still live), and she’s been working the past couple of months on getting them ready for self-publication as e- and paper books. The amount of work and self will that has gone into the process is incredible and very inspiring.

I would tell you about why I love her books, but her post is going to do it for me. It’s a master class in tension. It’s the kind of insight I get every week. And no, you can’t have her.

***

CAT

I love tension. I love long scenes between characters in which the tension rises and rises. My favourite author is Dorothy Dunnett, and she is the master of tension, especially in her later books, with scenes that run for twenty pages or more, in which the tension is not only sustained, it is also continually escalated–the holy grail of tension.

“How do you create tension in your writing?” is a question I am continually investigating. I’m not certain there is a simple formula, but there is certainly a single, unavoidable truth:

If you want tension in your story you have to 1) create it and 2) sustain it.

Creating it is easier than sustaining it. Sustaining tension for me becomes exponentially more difficult the longer I try to sustain it, and the stronger the tension that I am trying to sustain. I am often wrestling with a variety of techniques in order to try to push my tension higher or sustain tension through a longer scene.

I feel like I’m only at the beginning of my understanding of tension, and I still have many secrets to unlock. But for what it’s worth, here’s my take on how tension works, and some of the ways to create it and sustain it in writing.

Creating tension

Tension is something that exists between, usually between two forces, usually between two forces that are in opposition. I think of tension as either ‘push’ tension, like the tension in two bodies that are straining against one another until one of them gives ground, or ‘pull’ tension, like the tension in a rope that is being pulled at each end in a tug of war.

These forces might be two characters with opposing goals (external tension), they might be two opposing desires within one character (internal tension), they might be a character’s desire for a goal and the barrier to that goal. There are multiple possible forces, multiple forms of tension. The goodie versus baddie fight is tense because the force of survival is pitted against the force of annihilation. Sexual tension exists when the force of sexual desire pushes against the force of restraint and/or the obstacle to that desire: we want to but we can’t, or won’t, or musn’t, yet, for some reason. The stronger those forces, the more powerful the tension.

Because tension requires two forces to exist, creating tension means constructing and establishing those forces, then clearly expressing them to the reader. Once the forces are constructed, and the stakes made plain, tension will result. The more clearly the forces are drawn, and the higher the stakes are for the characters, the higher the tension.

One of the ways that I often see this done is by embedding the opposing forces into the characters themselves. That is probably one reason why opposites work so well in fiction: the rule follower and the loose canon, the fighter and the scholar, the Machiavel and the Alexander slicing through the Gordian knot. The hero and the villain. The character who sees things in black and white versus the character who sees things in shades of grey. Opposing archetypes are immediately in tension and have the potential to push or pull forever. One or the other must give way, and yet neither will give way, resulting in tension.

Another way I often see tension created is via the drawing of a boundary (as one force) and an opposing force that can then push against it. I’m going to use a big overblown example from a story that I read recently–

“If you touch me, I’ll kill you,” the character says. *  Tension is created because a clear boundary has been set, as well as clear stakes–life and death, but also pride, if the character backs down.

This is the same technique at work when Elizabeth Bennett says, “You are the last man on earth I would ever marry.” The boundary is clear, and the nature of the force pushing against the boundary, and the stakes–again pride, which is in tension with personal desire and happiness.

Another iteration of the boundary technique, used in an adventure setting, is one Anna discussed with me:  Haymitch telling Katniss never, ever to go to the cornucopia, because she’ll be slaughtered if she does. As soon as necessity forces Katniss to go to the cornucopia, the scene is tense, because she is pushing against a well-defined boundary, with clear stakes. Goal and threat are in tension.

Tension can also be created by the writing itself. That is, the writing can act as a force on the emotions of the scene, holding it back. “I’ll kill you,” he said steadily is more tense than, “I’ll kill you,” he screamed wildly, because the word choice restrains the (obviously) strident emotional content. Calm, strapped-down language acts as a force restraining the force of the emotion, creating tension.

Sustaining tension

There are lots of things that will cause tension to break or drop out, but for my money the three biggest tension-killers are 1) collapsing one of the opposing forces 2) catharsis, and 3) repetition.

Collapsing one of the forces is easy to understand: it’s capitulation, one of the forces giving in to the other. I think it can also happen by accident if one of the forces becomes less clear, less well drawn than the other, so that maintaining forces over time is important for sustaining tension.

Catharsis is the release of strong emotions, which also releases tension. Cathartic acts, such as violence or sex, will let all the tension out of the scene–or even the story–unless you manage to hold the emotion back, somehow, during those scenes. It’s hard, although not impossible, to have your character punch someone in the face in a tense way. The tension exists in the moment before the punch, and rises as the punch is delayed, but is released in the cathartic act, the punch itself. The reason why delaying catharsis increases tension is because the force of emotional release is set against the force of restraint, and those forces increase as the cathartic moment approaches.

Romance writers will know that it is equally hard, though not impossible, to have your characters have sex in a tense way–or, I should say, in a way that maintains sexual tension throughout and after the scene–unless something is held back, some type of catharsis avoided. In both sexual and dramatic contexts, sometimes even cathartic words will let out tension–screamed, wailed, flailed, sobbed, exploded, screeched–any words in which emotional release is implied will release tension from the scene.

Finally, repetition kills tension. “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is tense, but the second time the character says it, whether to the same person or someone else, it’s a fizzle. In romance parlance, a first kiss has more tension in it than a second kiss, unless there is something new about the second kiss.

Romance provides a good case study here because readers are familiar with the way that the romantic narrative is often written as a series of firsts: first touch, first kiss, first oral sex, first penetrative sex, first whichever act remains that we haven’t got around to yet. The acts can occur in any order, but repetition will cause a drop in tension, unless there is some other tension in play, some emotional first to substitute for the physical first.

Emotional repetition is an easier trap to fall into than physical repetition, but even deadlier to tension. The second time the emotional note is played it will lack the tension of the first, a reheated dinner. This is the reason why love triangles fall flat when the character oscillates between suitors one too many times, “it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him.” It’s the reason why unresolved sexual tension goes stale if characters repeat the same moves in the forwards-backwards dance, or rehash an objection when it has already played out the first time.

Because books are usually structured around a character arc or progression from ‘beginning self’ to ‘end self’, to hold tension the writer must order every step in the evolution, a series of notes played one after the other, in the correct sequence, with nothing repeated.

In my own writing, I often ask myself: Can I play this moment later? If the answer is yes, then I reserve the moment for later. If the answer is no, then I know that I’ve found the right moment to play the note. I have a Shakespeare quote inappropriately in my head, If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now. Sorry Hamlet.

Because repetition kills tension, one unexpected side-effect is that tense scenes burn through material, fast. A tense face off between characters will burn through backstory like nothing else.  And once the material is burned, it can never be used again. So sustaining tension also means creating enough material to sustain that tension.

Probably the best example that I can think of is one that only 0.001% of people reading this will be familiar with, nevertheless: the “salt pans” scene in book five of Dunnett’s Niccolo series, in which the books’ primary antagonists face off for the first time. Because it is the first time, the antagonists have five books worth of material to burn through and can hurl increasingly tense verbal exchanges at one another for unbelievable lengths of time. The scene incredibly sustains at defcon one tension levels for three chapters, a tour-de-force that I have never seen another author replicate. It was only because Dunnett saved all her material for that one scene that it was even possible.

I remember setting myself the “Dunnett challenge” of extending my tense face off as long as possible towards the end of book two of Captive Prince. In that scene, my hero faces down a traitor, and the two have a verbal drag-down match that I wanted to run for pages and pages, and be as tense as possible. I made it to eight pages, at which point I had burned through all the usable material that I had, including a twist I had reserved just for that scene, and some huge chunks of backstory. In the end, I just didn’t have enough to sustain any more than that, and I was done.

In this way, it’s much easier to write, say, fan fiction, where if Harry and Draco have a stand off, you have seven books worth of Rowling’s material to burn, everything from, “You imprisoned my family” to “You didn’t shake my hand on the train.” In original fiction, you have to build before you burn.

I think this also shows one of the ways in which tension requires an effort of imagination—the stronger the tension, the stronger the effort of imagination required. It’s not only thinking up burnable material, but also what I think of as “pathfinding”.  Pathfinding works something like this:

Once tension is created, there are three choices: break it, sustain it, or escalate it. Breaking it is easy. Sustaining it is harder. Escalating it is harder still. To use an earlier example, the escalating move on hearing, “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is to have the other character calmly reach out to touch. ** But once that is done, what happens next? It’s imaginatively very hard work to think of something that doesn’t involve catharsis by violence, collapsing one of the forces by backing down, or repetition.

Escalating in this example might be a dead end, something that you can’t think your way out of as the author, in which case better to go sideways and choose a path that instead sustains the tension at its current level.  “Will you?” is one tension-sustaining rejoinder that springs randomly to mind and so on, picking a path carefully through the dead ends and tension drops.

So, these are my thoughts on tension. I’m curious to hear from other writers about techniques that they use, and from readers, about which books or authors they find do tension well. Or which books are tensionless! Recommendations for books with stellar unresolved sexual tension are always welcome.

* This line did not occur in a sexual context, just FYI—although even as I type this I realise that “If you touch me, I’ll kill you” is embedded into one of my characters (Laurent) as a fundamental romantic character premise, despite him never saying the words aloud

** LOL what even is this example

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover!

 

id

I keep wanting to talk to you guys about id-related writing stuff, but it’s such a pseudo-concept Cat and I half-invented to discuss a certain kind of writing, that I’m going to have to explain it first.

Leave all actual psychological understanding of the term at the door.

Cat, who has a degree in psychology, was going to write me a post about it. Then she decided that to do the actual psychological concept of id justice she would need to write a PHD thesis on it. Which hopefully she is actually going to do.

So here’s the made-up version:

I’ve been using the word “id” a lot recently – mostly to describe the quality in writing that I most enjoy. My over-eager use of the word has led to quite a few of those awkward moments where someone more honest than I looks at me a little confused and says, “What exactly is id writing?”

Er.

Good question.

My loose understanding of the concept is this: You know when you come across a scene in a book, or a premise for a story, and the emotion of it grabs you by the guts? It doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an emotion or moral you would agree with. But something about it is primal and captivating, and there’s no question that the idea of it grabbed the writer and wouldn’t let go until it was written down.

For me, that is id writing. The thing that appeals to you on your most basic level – often in ways that are confronting, or that you wouldn’t expect, or that contradict what you rationally look to for fulfilment. It is the satisfaction of a childish emotional urge that cannot be reasoned with.

I decided, after a few too many of those awkward looks, to do a wee bit of id research (i.e. look it up on wikipedia). It’s fascinating reading. It all begins, of course, with Freud.

According to Freud (and now I feel like I’m back at uni) the id is the instinctual part of the human mind, whose only master is the pleasure principle. It’s a powerful drive for self-gratification that’s free of moral conscience. Contradictory impulses exist without negating each other; it is “the great reservoir of libido”, and it houses the “death instinct”.

We’re born id-ridden. We are all animal, all instinct. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Then, as reality starts making itself felt, we develop ego. Ego is the realist. It takes the desires and drives of the id and manages them in relation to reality. It compromises and goes into damage control. It lies to the id about reality, to make it more palatable.

The ego is where we develop defence mechanisms. The id runs into disaster – the ego makes a plan for how to stop that from happening next time.

The last of the trifecta is super-ego, the idealist and perfectionist. The super-ego has all the conscience, and it deals out punishment in the form of guilt when the ego hasn’t managed the mediate the contradictory goals of id and super-ego. The super-ego is what makes our behaviour socially acceptable.

So when I describe writing as coming from the id, you can start to get a picture of what that means. It’s writing that strips away the layers of sociable behaviour, then strips away the acceptable reality of the ego, and taps into the pure instinctive drive towards pleasure and destruction.

A good sign that you’ve tapped into an id-idea – you feel extremely confronted by it. And that doesn’t even mean it’s a full-on idea, objectively. Just that, to you, there’s something taboo about expressing it.

It’s fascinating, actually, discussing someone else’s id-idea with them. You can see it in their face, hear it in their voice, how difficult it is to even bring themselves to speak it – even though the idea itself is more often than not something completely innocuous to the listener.

One friend had to almost whisper the idea that her two characters might cook each other dinner and take care of each other.

Sounds like nothing, right? But when someone feels it that deeply – when it’s such a subversive, breathless idea to them – you can be sure that scene is going to be breathless and subversive to read.

This is where you risk something, when you write.

It’s why I went so deep into fan fiction. Fan fiction is all id. The only reason you would take characters from a world and explore them deeper is because something about them or the world-premise grabbed you right where your most instinctive desires and pleasures are, and wouldn’t let go. And because you’re not writing to a market, you can express every single one of those ideas without censorship.

Censorship is pretty much the antidote to id. Which is why those self-published novels that are badly written and unedited are doing so well. I’d bet good money on them being chockers full of id.

Once you start paying attention, you can spot id. Sometimes it’s overt – the Japanese have id coming out their ears, so almost any anime will be full of id. The character premise and relationships – and especially the way you can be sure whatever the premise, they’ll explore it to its most extreme end. The first book I read where there was no moving for id was Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood. Her anti-hero is Daemon Sadi, the fallen son of Satan, who has spent centuries as a pleasure slave. He’s controlled by a magical cock-ring that hasn’t always been strong enough to contain his rage. But often it’s less crazy-obvious.

If our id is the animal part of us, then reading id writing is something like a hand brushed rough and good through our fur.

Cat and I have discussed id so often, and gotten so good at spotting it in each other, that now when one of us is confronted by an idea our first reaction is: “You have to write that.”

So next time you get a glimmer of an idea that terrifies you, or you think up a line of dialogue that makes you blush and go, “No way could I ever write that! Writing that would crack the world open!” – write. Explore. Be brave. It’ll be worth it.