A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

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Writers’ Camp, Anyone?

I’m curious: what do you think about writing workshops–specifically workshops that are a few days to a week long?

I met my husband at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, in Hindman, Kentucky. He was teaching fiction and I was a newbie writer. (It’s okay. You can smirk. Lots of people have over the years!) I’d never workshopped stories outside the classroom. I’d also never slept in a cabin dormitory, 4 sleepers to a cubby, or washed dishes in a camp kitchen, so the whole week was full of new experiences.

Workshops are intimate. (No, not that kind of intimate, though sometimes there’s, um, activity between consenting adults that can be awkward for everyone. Think of summer camp, or high school. But it doesn’t have to be that way.) Participants work with the same teacher, and the same group of writers, for several days in a row. You get to know each other, and group dynamics emerge quickly. If the instructor is good at their job, it becomes a space where people feel comfortable sharing their work, and receiving and giving thoughtful criticism.

It’s nice spending time with like-minded writers in real life, as opposed to hanging out online. In a well-run workshop, the writer must listen to everyone’s critique before they speak about their own work. Because a writer needs to learn that they can’t be on the shoulder of every reader to explain what they meant if something isn’t clear or understandable to that reader. The work has to speak for itself. BUT the good news is that most workshops schedule plenty of downtime. Often the real learning happens over dinner, around a campfire, or over a glass of wine or two. It’s good to share the journey. And don’t forget the networking thing. It’s important. At a workshop, you can meet professionals (often agents and editors), and form friendships with other writers that can last for a lifetime.

Am I trying to sell you on workshops, or a particular workshop? No. While I encourage you to give one a try, they’re not for everyone. I was scheduled to teach at a workshop in June, but money is tight all around, and my class didn’t fill. It’s disappointing, but I look forward to staying home and writing. Maybe next year.

There are many more glamorous spots for writers’ conferences than Eastern Kentucky–I went there because the mountains were home to my grandfather, and because it was economical. If you want to get exotic, you could go to the workshops at Positano. But you must take me with you.

Tell us your thoughts on writing workshops. Are there any you would recommend to other writers?

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Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

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To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures.net)

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned HeartVisit her at laurabenedict.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

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How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

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What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).

 

–Gender

–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period

–Location

–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity

 

Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

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Behind Closed Doors: Writing Intimacy

Empty Hotel Bed

I don’t know about you, but I find scenes of intimacy (read: sex) pretty hard to write. In life, I don’t have much problem talking about sex, sexual issues, sexuality, etc. My kids know I’m a safe person to talk to about such things, and I’ve been known to make (age-appropriate) comments during films or even conversations that lead to serious discussions, and sometimes giggles and eye-rolls.

But for me, writing about physical intimacy doesn’t come any more naturally than writing dialogue that sounds natural. No one wants to read a physical catalogue of the act. Neither should a scene be so swathed in innuendo that it has to be read twice for the reader to understand what’s going on. And such scenes can’t just be dropped, cold, into the middle of a book, a result of a, “Oh, readers will probably expect them to have sex, now,” decision. Like well-described action of any sort, it’s way more art than science.

I bet you’re expecting some sage writing advice about now. That’s what folks come here for, yes? Here’s a secret: even though there are plenty of steamy (and sometimes rough) sex scenes in my novels, the truth is that I’m on a quest to make the next ones I write better, more authentic, and—when appropriate–sexier.

I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject because that’s one of the primary ways I learn new things. (Though I confess I don’t advertise the fact that I’m reading these books to my seventeen-year-old son. Having me as a parent means he’s already embarrassed plenty.)

The book I definitely don’t read at the doctor’s office or in the carpool line is the plainly titled How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica, by Susie Bright. While I’m not looking to write erotica specifically, she spends the first third of the book talking about the history of writing sex in America, as well as the subject of literary intimacy in general. It came out in 2002—definitely pre-Fifty Shades of Gray days.

I’ve just had Diana Gabaldon’s recent Kindle Single, “I Give You My Body…”: How I Write Sex Scenes, recommended to me. Diana Gabaldon is renowned for her intense, frank, and occasionally humorous sex scenes (seriously, I blush!), and I’m very curious about her willingness to, ahem, go there.

The third book is by literary writer and educator, Elizabeth Benedict. The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers has the most academic approach of the three, with excerpts from the likes of John Updike, Russell Banks, and Dorothy Allison.

But now I’d like to hear from you.

Who are some examples of writers who write terrific sex scenes?

How do you approach writing an intimate scene? Do you dive right in, or does it take you a while?

Bonus question: What was the first book you ever read that had a sex scene in it?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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Hail Thee, Book Festival Day

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With my table mate, the irrepressibly talented Amy E. Reichert (l), at Books by the Banks 2016

 

If there’s one occupation I never imagined pursuing again, it was being a salesperson. During high school, in between various food service jobs, I worked a Christmas gig selling office supplies in a mall kiosk, and later sold ladies clothes in a rather grim department store. In college, I was hired by a temp agency to cold-call businesses over the phone to get appointments for the woman who did the actual selling. I was petrified of cold-calling. They gave me a script, which I’m sure had been developed by corporate sales professionals. I hated every moment of those calls. I dreaded going to work, and energetically did every other part of my job that didn’t include cold-calling. They should have fired me, but they didn’t, because I worked hard to make myself otherwise indispensable.

I’m on an extended book tour for The Abandoned Heart all this month, and the early part of November. Tours are a lot of fun. I like to drive, so I don’t mind hopping in the car to do a reading, conference, or festival that’s within a one-and-a-half-day traveling radius. When I started touring almost ten years ago, the norm was single- or two-author bookstore appearances. But there are a lot fewer bookstores these days, and a lot more authors looking for readers.

Enter the book festival. Book festivals are a blast, and a win-win-win (-win) for authors, booksellers, libraries, and charities. They foster a love of books and a love of reading in both adults and children. (If you follow this link, you will disappear down a path leading to pretty much every festival in the known world, and may find yourself imagining that you, too, should definitely be invited to the Blenheim Palace Festival in the U.K. or the exclusive The New Yorker Festival. Ignore the fab photos of the famous actors—you know everyone really will be there to meet the writers!) Book festivals enjoy an economy of scale undreamed of by a single bookstore or library. There’s lots of room for authors and their books, and readers are wonderfully motivated to meet their favorite authors and have their books signed. Plus, a festival is a great opportunity to hang out with other writers.

The flip side is, of course, that you’re cheek-by-jowl with your competition. Friendly competition, but still competition. Writers are there to sell books, and readers are there to buy them.

This past weekend, I was at a table at Cincinnati’s wonderful Books By The Banks Festival, which featured around 150 authors. It was the festival’s tenth anniversary, and I’m not surprised that it continues to thrive. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated, the authors seemed delighted to be there, and it was bustling with readers all day long.

I saw three kinds of authors there: 1) Super-famous authors who had all-day lines; 2) Bored-looking authors who waited—often in vain—for people to come and talk to them; and 3) The rest of us—writers who spent most of the day standing, chatting, laughing and, yes, selling.

I didn’t leave my table often, but as a reader, I found myself pretty overwhelmed. Even though I don’t much read YA or children’s literature, I still buy gifts, so every book was a possibility. And there’s something magical about picking up a book and having it signed—right there—by the author. I still geek out about it.

Something about being face-to-face with readers trying to make a choice between one of my books and another writer’s book reminded me how intimate the relationship between reader and writer is. As writers, we are engaged in a kind of seduction. A tease. Our words must immediately entice a reader—bonus points if a killer cover piques their interest first. During a personal appearance, the writer, rather than the book, has to do most of the talking. That’s what she’s there for: to answer questions, to give the inside scoop, to facilitate the decision without being pushy. It’s a sales transaction, but a delicate one. The buyer is purchasing something with which they will spend long, intimate hours. It’s way more like speed dating than going to the local independent for coffee and a browse. Few readers buy carelessly at book festivals.

I found myself a little annoyed by the bored-seeming authors. I wanted to ask why they even bothered to come. It’s entirely possible that they were shy. After all, most of the 150 authors in attendance got there because they spent many, many hours alone in order to get their books written. But shyness isn’t an excuse. Unless you’re Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King, you’re going to need to make an effort to sell books. (To be fair, all three of these writers are engaging and interesting people who speak up about their work.)

As difficult as I find it sometimes to come out from beneath my writer-rock, I love connecting with real live readers, and not just the hypothetical ones in my head. The ones in my head frighten me a little. The ones I meet on the road are always friendly and generous, and they renew my energy for writing for them. Truly, salesmanship is the least of it. There are times when I feel a little silly hawking my wares (books), but when I connect with a reader, and I see that spark of joy in their eyes when they slide a book across the table, saying, “Will you sign this for me?” any thought of selling or having sold something slips away. It’s just the two of us, with happiness in between, and I think, “Yes. Yes, this is why I do it.”

 

Have you attended a book festival? How do you feel they compare to individual author events?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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Writing Backwards: Sometimes It Works (Guest: Laura Benedict)

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

 

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Before Laura Benedict joined TKZ as a new member recently, I had lined her up for a guest spot when her new book would be launched. I hope you’ll indulge us in allowing me to keep my promise in featuring Laura and her work. Take it away, Laura.

***

When I decided that I wanted to write a series of suspense novels, I didn’t do what many writers do: plunge a character into earth-shattering change, see how they respond, rebuild their world, have a successful conclusion to the story (meaning they survive), and move on to the next book. No, I wrote a different sort of series.

My vision of the Bliss House novels came to me all at once: five novels set in the life of a grand house that was built in Virginia in 1878 by a Long Island carpetbagger named Randolph Bliss. I knew Randolph Bliss to be an evil sumbitch, but he couldn’t be my series protagonist because of the extended time period, 1876-2014,—though since the supernatural is involved, I guess he technically could have been the protagonist. But the stories that came to me weren’t primarily about Randolph, or any other human. Their common actor, the character that drives the stories, stirs up and engages in conflict, and even changes over the years, is Bliss House itself.

I wrote three Bliss House novels: Bliss House was published in 2014, Charlotte’s Story in 2015, and The Abandoned Heart comes out next week, on October 11th.

Rather than start the saga of Bliss House with the house’s initial construction, I wrote the last book, first. Bliss House is a contemporary novel, set around 2014. By starting at the end, I was able to jumpstart the series with a story in which my protagonist was at its most powerful. (To be clear, though, the series is actually more of a collection of novels than a series. They all work as standalones.)

Oh, did I mention that Bliss House is haunted?

I had long wanted to write a haunted house novel. My favorite gothics—Jane Eyre and Rebecca—are set in houses that heavily influence the novels’ action. And then there are the novels with actively haunted houses: The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House, The Turn of the Screw. The Haunting of Hill House, and The Turn of the Screw appeal to me because it’s possible to imagine that their hauntings are psychological, rather than organic. One of the premises of the Bliss House novels is that a house can be imprinted with the personalities and acts of its inhabitants. Thus, by 2014, Bliss House is replete with acts of both evil and goodness. But imprinting can work both ways: a story’s characters can be heavily influenced and even changed—physically and emotionally—by a house’s personality.

Think about your own experience with houses or even other types of buildings. There are buildings that make us feel good, and energized. And then there are the places that seem to sap our energy—a house, a school, a garage, a basement—places where we’ve experienced trauma, or that signal that something is just not right. Sometimes it has to do with unsettling angles and corners. Architecture can be claustrophobic or unfriendly. Every building has a distinct personality.

Years ago I saw a film called The Enchanted Cottage and was mesmerized by its plot: a disfigured WWII pilot played by Robert Young marries a homely young woman played by Dorothy McGuire. They settle in a charming honeymoon cottage in the English countryside, and soon after their marriage, they begin to see each other differently. Whole and attractive. They’re certain that the cottage has worked some magic on them, and they’re eager to surprise their loved ones with the happy results. Of course, it’s revealed to them that they have not physically changed, but now simply see each other through the eyes of love. It’s an unabashedly romantic story, originally written as a play produced just after WWI. I am no eager fan of romantic stories, but I am fond of fairy tales with hints of darkness. Perhaps I’m the only one who saw the possibilities of darkness in this story, of the house that might have manipulated these two people for its own reasons. Was it to trick them? To expose their deepest fears and wishes?

But back to the writing backwards thing. I knew from the moment I wrote the first lines in Chapter One of Bliss House that whatever was manipulating the house’s inhabitants was threaded through the very ground on which it was built:

“The blindfold kept Allison from seeing, but the chilly air around her smelled sweet and damp. There were flowers nearby—roses, she guessed—and the drip drip drip of water. They might be underground, even in a cave.
How thrilling!”

I knew Randolph Bliss and his two (consecutive) wives were at the heart of the story that began nearly a century and a half earlier. There are elements in Bliss House whose significance isn’t seen until they’re introduced in The Abandoned Heart. And there are many things in The Abandoned Heart that I couldn’t see clearly until I had written Charlotte’s Story, which takes place in the 1950s.

I remember thinking that it might be somewhat easier to write the Bliss House novels starting with the last one, rather than starting in 1878. It was not. When a book is written and published, the story is pretty much set in stone. Family lineage of the characters is already chosen and established, including numbers of siblings, and physical traits. The geography is set. The house’s reputation as a dangerous place has to be carefully constructed in order to make it reflect the first (last) book.

The one constant had to be the house, even though its appearance and bearing changes with each book. When Rainey Bliss Adams buys it in 2014, it’s in considerable disrepair because its incarnation as an inn that was the site of a brutal murder meant it was vacant for several years. Rainey makes it the showplace it was when it was first built. In the mid 1950s, in Charlotte’s Story, Bliss House bears the gothic heaviness of a house that’s seen three generations of devastating secrets. But Bliss House truly shines in The Abandoned Heart. It smells of new wood, and new gardens. It’s filled with paintings and exquisite rugs and European furniture. It is surrounded by newly-planted orchards and centuries-old woodlands. Most of its secrets are unborn, and the ones extant are fresh, and perhaps not yet dangerous.

If you read the Bliss House books, feel free to start with the last. Or the first. Or even the middle one. I don’t mind.

To move back in time the way I did seems a little crazy to me now. But the only way to be true to a story is to tell it the way it presents itself. Sometimes stories aren’t logical or easy. Here, backwards isn’t a gimmick. It’s just the way the story happened. I was lucky this time around to have a publisher who didn’t mind my doing something a bit unconventional.

I haven’t decided if The Abandoned Heart is the last you’ll hear of Bliss House. A hundred-plus year-old house has a lot of stories living inside it, and clamoring to be told. Ghosts are…noisy.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you ever tried writing a series backwards? Or did you find new inspiration for a series by discovering a great backstory to write about?

2.) Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had experiences with the dead?

The Abandoned Heart is available for pre-order HERE, and will be in stores on Tuesday, October 11th. Laura will be touring throughout October and early November in Missouri, Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. Check her list of appearances HERE.

Charlotte’s Story, the second Bliss House Novel is out now.

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Website: http://www.laurabenedict.com/

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/laura_benedict/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurabenedict

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLauraBenedict/

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On Retreat: Running Away to Write

 

Last week I started organizing end-of-fiscal year tax receipts. Having just returned from Bouchercon, it was a good time to make sure I had my business trip records all in order (read: receipts stuffed into individual envelopes). At first, it was the only trip I recalled, but then I remembered a couple readings in St. Louis I could claim hotel and mileage expenses for. It seemed slim pickings, but I will be touring this month and some of next, so there will be many more envelopes. Then I remembered my writing retreats.

Way back in early January, I needed to get some serious, concentrated words on my WIP, which was due on Valentine’s Day. ( I wrote a bit about it a few Wednesdays ago on my 10K-A-Day post.) I love my family, but if there are other people in the house, my concentration flees. Sometimes I’m able to shut my office door, but I’m always wondering what’s going on on the other side of it. So I often find myself doing things that are not writing during the daylight hours, and only writing after ten p.m. when everyone has gone to bed. I love the quiet. No voices. No music. Not much happening on FaceBook. Snoring animals. Owls outside my window. Those are perfect writing conditions for my ADD brain. Sadly, the not-perfect part is that I routinely go to bed at 1:30 and get up at 7:30. It wears on a body.

So, last January I got myself an AirBnB apartment in St. Louis for several days. It was on a cul-de-sac, and very quiet. Blissfully quiet. Lonesome, even. The chair was uncomfortable and kept me upright. I was paying lots of money to be there, so I was mindful. I only had to cook for myself. (That was weird.) I didn’t stay up all that late, and I wrote in 2-3 long sessions each day. It was my second-favorite writing retreat I’d ever taken, after a solo week at an inn on Ocracoke Island in 2002. (In fact I think it was only my 2nd writing retreat, period.)

But I did get in another writing retreat this year. Over Labor Day Weekend, I went to the Nashville home of another writer—along with four other women. That was something I’d never done before. (Though I did go to a scrapbooking lake retreat around 2004. I didn’t and don’t scrapbook, but I journalled and did needlepoint. On reflection, it was probably a little odd that I went. Still, there was wine and the women were friendly.)

Writing in a crowd felt awkward at first. There was plenty of room to spread out, so we didn’t actually even have to see one another if we didn’t want to. But eventually I adjusted. Everyone was serious about getting words done. Then we gathered for meals, taking turns cooking. In the evening, there was wine and much discussion and much laughter. We talked about our careers and the industry and craft, and told stories that were harrowing or hysterically funny. It was a completely different kind of retreat.

I didn’t get more than five thousand words on that retreat. Hardly comparable to my January trip. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I returned energized and ready to work harder. Writing can be such a lonely job. As here at TKZ, it’s good to be with like-minded people. To share stories and advice and good news and bad. And there’s nothing like face-to-face communication with nary a computer screen in sight.

Have you ever gone on a writing retreat—alone or with other writers?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart, coming October 11th. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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