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The Dear Diary Navel Gaze VS the Novels that Keep Me Up all Night

Writing imageA huge part of being a novelist is analysing everything I read, everything I see, everything I watch on television, on YouTube, at the cinema. I do this to make myself a better writer. I do this because I need to know what works, what doesn’t, and why. Of course, what works and what doesn’t is all filtered through my own grey matter and my own life experiences, so it may not be the same for another writer, and certainly not for another reader. I find myself thinking about this analytical writers’ life most often when something really, really works, or really, really doesn’t. That isn’t to say that what doesn’t work is something I hate. That’s pretty obvious. But more often, for me, I find myself analysing the things that I walk away from feeling pretty much unaffected. If I feel meh about something then I want to know why.

I should never walk away from a good story feeling meh. In fact that’s the litmus test for me. A horrible story offers its own petty pleasures, but meh is forgettable, and forgettable is not acceptable for a novelist or a reader. We all want repeat performances of what we love most and we’re all anxious to be led to the next level beyond intimated by that experience.

Being a romance writer, it’s a given that I want chemistry, that I want love, that I want sizzle and sass. But I could have
written those things in my diary when I was a teenager, and probably would have if I hadn’t been afraid someone would find it where I hid it under my mattress and share it with all the world. Heavens, I had so many deep dark secrets at the ripe old age of sixteen, and I wrote about them … ad nauseum, always with me and my feelings at the center. Me, me, me! In essence I could boil down most of my journals as being one long multi-volume navel gaze. Oh for me it was psyche_et_lamour_327x567endlessly fascinating to explore my inner workings, my inner feelings, my loves and losses and obsessive crushes, the fleeting glances, the anguished longing. But I’m pretty sure it would have been a real yawner for anyone else to read.

What I’ve discovered is that no matter how fascinating my own might be, someone else’ navel gaze is never as interesting to me. And there are plenty of romance novel navel gazes out there to be read. What I want, what I need is conflict and chaos. For romance in story to be more than a navel gaze there needs to be both. Two people dealing with conflict, two people thrown into a situation that demands something of them, that places them at risk or forces them to take a chance moves beyond the realm of the dear-diary-navel-gaze and into the realm of story.

The situation, the conflict, the action is the very best place to see how people respond to each other, the very best place
to watch them grow beyond themselves. It’s through conflict and action we learn who the characters in story really are. The Happy Ending is just that — an ending. Beyond that there may be endless navel gazing by readers, creators of fanfic, even we writers ourselves. But that’s a different animal. When I wrote my first novel, long after I’d written THE END, in my head, I was still creating new and different opportunities for my characters to gaze into each others’ eyes and to have hot sex. These were scenes that no one but me would ever know about. I still find myself doing that sometimes, and I hope that my readers will find themselves doing the same when they’ve finished one of my novels. I hope they’ll want to hang around with the characters long after THE END. But then that’s their navel gaze, their imaginations encountering my characters in ways that work for them. That means I’ve done my job in creating a story the reader doesn’t want to leave when it’s finished. In fiction, THAT’S the proper place for a navel gaze.

But the novels that keep me reading into the wee hours, the stories that I remember, that move me, the stories that I keep returning to in my head are the stories in which the hero and heroine are being acted upon by forces greater than themselves. In fact the very best stories are the stories that have a life of their own, a life which affects all that the characters do and who they become. It’s how the characters deal with conflict, and how that conflict brings them to their HEA that keeps me up all night racing toward the end even as I try to slow down to make it last.

I’m a tender critic, in all honesty. I do my best to find the good in whatever it is I read because my hat’s always off to Sleeping woman reading181340322466666994_IswNAb85_b
anyone who has had the discipline and the tenacity to see their story through to the end and get it out there to be read.
BUT I remember stories and respect stories that pull me in with an action greater and more important than two people being attracted to each other. Life is acted out in context of the people with whom we live in relationship. As writers, our characters may be actors upon a stage, but that stage can never be passive. That stage must also act upon our characters. If it doesn’t, then we’re probably really just writing in our diary or playing around inside our own heads. And that’s fine. Everyone needs a little navel-gazing. But navel-gazing is not story. While there’s a place for both, navel-gazing is not likely to keep me up all night.

 

Sex and the Big Brain

(Archive)

Bernini Hades and Persephone close uptumblr_lg4h59T3z31qe2nvuo1_500I had a sex blogger ask me once how I could possibly write about things I hadn’t experienced. My answer at the time, though accurate, was a bit flippant I suppose. I said that it’s fiction. It’s no more difficult for me to write about sex that I’ve not experienced than it is for Thomas Harris to write about serial killers when he certainly isn’t one.

I think I can write about sex I’ve never experienced, would never even want to experience in the real world because I have a big brain. Oh, not my brain in particular. All humans have ‘em, and we use them in sex even when we’re not having sex. The thing about having a big brain is that it adds a new dimension to a biological act. In the hormonal, pheromonal soup that drives us to fuck, we get the added pleasure of making it up as we go along. In our heads — anyway we like it. And this, we can do completely and totally without the help of anyone else.

Which leads me to wonder how much of fiction writing – any genre of fiction writing – is really our big brain masturbating – first for our own pleasure, and if we get lucky and our work gets published, then we get to be exhibitionists and do it for an audience. Is that yet another layer of our sexuality? There’ve been countless of books and essays written on the connection between sexuality and creativity, and I’ve experienced it myself. When it’s right, when I’m in the zone, the rush, the high, the incredible buzz of getting characters and plot to move together in just the right tango of conflict and passion and drive, the experience from a writer’s point of view is extremely sexual, and yet somehow better than sex. It’s sex on steroids, it’s free-falling, it’s roller coaster riding, it’s fast cars, mountain tops and touching the tiger all rolled into one. And it all happens in some nebulous part of our brains that only a neurosurgeon might be able to pin-point for us. And who cares? Who cares as long as it gets us there!

Those moments don’t happen often, but it doesn’t matter. They happen often enough to push us forward, to keep us going and writing and longing and digging deep for the next wild brain-gasm. I just came off of one of those experiences while racing to finish the draft of The Exhibition. It was a
late-night write, a dark, dangerous sex scene in which the characters staged a coup and completely took control of the action. I came away staggering, looking down at my hands, wondering how the hell I wrote that. I was too hyped to sleep, too creeped out to think about who might be america-artist-art-paintings-prints-note-cards-by-howard-chandler-christy-nude-women-reading-approximate-original-size-18x16waiting for me in my dreams after what I’d just written. And yet … And yet I felt stretched, expanded, like for a second I’d seen sex at the core where the dark and light meet and swallow each other up. And what’s left is a wild, crazy pull to translate what just happened into some kind of written account that will convey that feeling, that sense of being beyond myself, yet deeper into the dark recess of myself than I felt really comfortable going. And as any writer would, longing to drag my reader right in there with me, into the dark, into the fire.

It was a long time before I could sleep. It was a long time before I felt quite like myself again. And that’s what got me thinking about my big brain,
which at times, seems so much bigger than just the space in my head. And I guess maybe I do have to experience something in order to write about it. But the big brain creates that experience in the privacy of my own head. That being the case, how could I not keep going back for more? How could I not want desperately to write what my big brain allows me to experience? How could I not want to bring it out and flaunt it for the reader’s full participation?

 

Voyeur or Body Thief

(From the Archives)
One of the most intriguing parts of story for me has always been the way in which the reader interacts with it, more specifically the way in which http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-abstract-black-white-writing-pen-image20156020the reader interacts with the characters in a story. I find that interaction especially intriguing in erotica and erotic romance.

To me, the power of story is that it’s many faceted and it’s never static. And, no matter how old the story is, it’s never finished as long as there’s someone new to read it and to bring their experience into it. Like most writers of fiction, I’m forever trying to analyse how a powerful story is internalised, and why what moves one reader deeply, what can be a life-changing experience for one may be nothing more exciting than window shopping for another.

In my own experience as a reader, there are two extremes. I can approach a story as a voyeur, on the outside looking in from a safe distance, or I can be a body thief at the other end of the spectrum and replace the main character in the story with myself.

One extreme allows the reader to watch without engaging and the other allows the reader to create sort of a sing-along-Sound of Music- ish experience for themselves. As a reader, I’ve done both and had decent experiences of novels doing both. As a writer, however, I don’t wish to create a story that allows my reader to be a voyeur of a body thief.

As a writer I want to create a story that’s a full-on, in-the-body, stay-present experience from beginning to end. I want characters that readers can identify with and are drawn to but don’t necessarily want to be. I want a plot that feels more like abseiling with a questionable rope than watching the world go by from the window of a car. I want to create that tight-rope walk in the middle. I want to create that place in story where the imagination of the reader is fully engaged with the story the writer created. That place is the place where the story is a different experience for each reader. That’s the place where the story is a living thing that matters more than the words of which it’s made up. It matters more because the reader has connected with it, engaged with it, been changed by it. In that place, the story and the reader are in relationship. Neither can embody the other, neither can watch from a distance. The end result may be a HEA, the end result may be disturbing and unsettling, but at the end of a really good read, the journey to get there is at least as important as the end result.

Erotica and erotic romance are by their nature a visceral experience. Though I think that’s probably true of any good story. I don’t think good
erotica can be watched from a distance any more than it can be the tale of the body thief. While either will get you there, there’s no guarantee that the journey will be a quality one. And I want a quality journey. I want to come to the end wishing I hadn’t gotten there so quickly, wishing I’d had the will power to slow down and savour the experience just a little longer. I want to come to the end wondering just what layers, what subtleties, what nuances I missed because I got caught up in the runaway train ride and couldn’t quite take it all in.

A good read is the gift that keeps on giving. Long after I’ve finished the story, the experience lingers, and little tidbits that I raced through during Sleeping woman reading181340322466666994_IswNAb85_bthe read bubble up from my unconscious to surprise me, intrigue me, make me think about the story on still other levels, from still other angles. When I can’t get it out of my head, when I find myself, long after I’ve come to the end, thinking about the journey, thinking about the characters, thinking about the plot twists and turns, then I know the story has gotten inside me and burrowed deep. There was no pane of glass in between; there was no body for me to inhabit because all bodies were fully occupied by characters with their own minds and their own agendas. The experience extends itself to something that stays with me long after the read is finished and makes me try all the harder to create that multi-layered experience in my own writing.

 

The Power of The One

(Archived from post written for ERWA Sept 2012)

Like most writers, I spend a lot of time analysing what makes a story work. Why does one story grip me when another doesn’t? Why do the characters in one tale make me want to curl myself around them and never let them go while others feel more like they’re only people waiting at the bus stop with me, people who barely register in my mind.

How much of what makes a story work is plot and how much is character? Sometimes nothing happens in a story, and I’m enthralled. At other times everything happens in a story, and I don’t care. Am I just picky? I wonder if in the age of free Kindle downloads, being spoiled for choice hasn’t jaded us so much as it has left us frantically searching for The One. And the stories that really do work for me are the stories in which I most fully experience the power of The One.

It seems to me that the power of The One is more evident in erotica and romance than it is in any other genre. I suppose that sounds really obvious in a Cinderella and Prince Charming, or best fuck ever sort of way. At the risk of over-simplifying, it’s all about being The One, finding The One, enticing The One, seducing or being seduced by The One. Happily ever aftering with The One.

In our need to connect, in our need for intimacy, it seems to me that the power of The One draws us more than any other element of story. It isn’t so much the need for a knight on a white horse as it is the need for a kindred spirit, as it is the need for someone who groks us, someone who gets us on the deepest level of our quirkiness, our flaws, our potential, our Oneness. The archetypal story is that The One goes on a journey that no one else can go on, and on that danger-fraught journey, The One finds The Other One, the only Other One who really gets him/her, who is the flint to The One’s steel. And the resulting fire is what propels the story, what takes the reader in and entices her into her own place of Oneness. Hearts and flowers – maybe. Best fuck ever – could be. Magnetic connection – bound to be.

The thing is, not everyone’s fire is fueled the same way. One person’s One is another person’s bloke at the bus stop. The story of The One can be a game of substitution in which our minds edit out the hero/heroine and insert ourselves making the story about us. WE become The One. Or the story of The One can be more of a voyeuristic menage in which we find ourselves happily inserted into the relationship, experiencing a bit of the hero, a bit of the heroine, and basking in the chemistry that happens in the space between, when two Ones collide. I find this to be more of a 3D way to experience The One. In a lot of ways that space in between, that joining place where the rough edges rub up against each other is the real One. The joining place is the space in which the two become a different kind of One.

Beyond romance and erotica, the power of The One is what so much of story is about. The One who catches the serial killer. The One who is the serial killer. The One who wins the battle, The One who pulls the Sword from the stone, The One whose face launches a thousand ships. The One who can wear the glass slipper.

The tale of The One is the mathematics of story. The One plus the Other One equals One, and that One is
the Whole, the plurality of One.

Writing imageThe tale of The One is the physics of story. When the One fuses with the Other One, they join together to form THE ONE. That fusing results in a release of energy, energy that feeds the reader, energy that drives the story.

When The One reader finds The One story, the energy released can change the reader’s internal landscape. The constant search for The One story by the reader is a treasure hunt that can change everything. Every reader has experienced that post coital bliss of indulging in The One story. It’s chemistry, it’s fire, it’s magic! It doesn’t happen often, but every time it does, it’s enough. It’s enough to drive us on in search of the next One

 

Sex and Fiction Revealed

From the Archives:
Rodin 250px-The_KissI once sat through a reading of four fairly well-known romance writers, who had great stage presence, read beautifully from their new best sellers, and answered the audience’s questions with the level of expertise one would expect from people who make their living as writers. That is until they were asked about writing sex.

There was a frisson of embarrassment across the stage and a lot of shifting and shuffling and throat clearing as all four made excuses for why they were uncomfortable writing sex and therefore didn’t do it if they could avoid it. Then the question was dismissed with all the gravity a question about the proper shade of lippy might have been.

I wanted to shout, ‘This is sex! It’s the biggie! It’s what romance leads to! It’s what made us all! Beyond the shouting, sex is the powerful leveler of persons that strips us of our facades and brings us down to the deepest part of ourselves, and occasionally the best part. It exposes our animal nature with all its crudeness and all its charm. Sex is one of the best ways for a reader to get to know a character. With that in mind, I can’t imagine why all writers aren’t dying to write their next sex scene.

I appreciate a good sex scene in a novel – any novel – because sex in fiction, no matter how dangerous, is always safe sex. I enjoy writing erotica because it allows me, and my reader, to experience sex vicariously, safely, in ways we would never experience it in the real world. In some cases it’s only to see what the appeal of being there is. In other cases it’s the fulfillment of fantasy on the written page done safely without leaving the comfort of the recliner. For me, as writer and reader, there’s also the added excitement of sharing fantasies with total strangers.

I’m told I don’t look like the type of woman who would write erotica, but the more I write, the more I
wonder why the type of woman who writes erotica shouldn’t be Everywoman. We all have fantasies, and I can speak first hand as to how hot it is to write those fantasies down – in detail. No one needs to read them but ourselves. Hey, it’s a cheap sex toy – a piece of paper and a pen – a hot pink one, maybe??? It’s safe sex at its best. The world of the written page has always allowed us to walk in other dimensions, other realities, other times, and to see the world through the eyes of other people. Why shouldn’t sex be included in those other realities?

Coming home from the States on a night flight a couple of years ago, unable to sleep, I found myself watching the film, The Ugly Truth, with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigle. Butler’s character is trying to help Heigle’s character develop a relationship with a hot doctor. He asks her how often she Naked guy readingmasturbates. Horrified, she says she doesn’t do that sort of thing, to which he replies, ‘If you don’t want to make love to yourself, what makes you think anyone else will want to?’

According to Wallace Shawn, “Sex really is a nation of its own. Those whose allegiance is given to sex at a certain moment withdraw their loyalty temporarily from other powers. It’s a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.”

I’ll admit it; I’m a defector to that nation of sex. It’s a large nation with lots of room, and I’m inviting everyone I know to defect and enjoy.

You can read Wallace Shawn’s great essay about writing sex here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/jun/20/wallace-shawn-writing-about-sex

 
© 2018 K D Grace
The Romance Reviews

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