When to Get Inside a Character’s Head (and When to Avoid It)

One of the best things about writing is that it gives you an opportunity to explore the world from different perspectives. Getting inside the minds of your characters can lead to a richer understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, living in a different place or time or body.

And sometimes, a character’s mind is just a fun place to be. Many writers have that one character who’s a particular joy to write (for me, it’s Mitch from The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg. Basically, the inside of his mind looks like The Lego Movie) so why not escape into someone else’s brain for a while?

But sometimes, even when writing in first person, it’s more effective to take a step back and focus on a character’s actions or surroundings rather than their thoughts and feelings. So when should you get inside a character’s head? Here are some thoughts on when to do it and when to avoid it.

Do it

To generate empathy. Characters don’t always have to be likeable, but readers should be able to empathise with them to some extent, and get a sense of why they do the things they do. 

If your protagonist makes some pretty questionable decisions, it’s important to show the thought processes, feelings and backstory behind those decisions. In the case of an antagonist, getting inside her head can make her more of a complex adversary and less of a pantomime villain who does bad things because she’s bad.

When most of the action is inside your character’s head. There are plenty of brilliant novels where not much happens at all. Classics like Pride and Prejudice (about a man changing his manners and a woman changing her mind) prove that you don’t need car chases or sword fights to create a thrilling story.

But if it’s light on action, there needs to be a lot going on behind your characters’ eyes and your readers need to know about it. The emotional drama needn’t be overwrought and soap opera-ish, but it should be complex and sincerely felt.

When someone is in an unusual situation. Sometimes, a character gets into a situation that isn’t easy for a reader to relate to. This is particularly common in Fantasy and Sci-Fi. When weird shit hits the fan, a reader might not know how to react. Is this a dangerous situation? A whimsical detour?

You can give the reader cues through tone and pacing, but one of the most effective ways of helping a reader relate to a weird situation is by getting inside the character’s head and showing what they think and feel about it.

To show that a character’s mind works differently. If your character has an IQ of 152 or 45, his thought patterns may differ significantly from the average reader’s. The same is true of characters with other kinds of neurodivergence like autism, ADHD, or mental illness.

If a reader only sees the character’s behaviour, they may find it difficult to relate to. But give them a chance to see inside the character’s mind and they are much more likely to understand. If you’re writing about someone different to you, remember to do your research!

Avoid it

When a character needs to keep a secret from the reader. Sometimes, to avoid spoiling plot twists, your character needs to keep things hidden. In a murder mystery, for example, your character might figure out whodunnit some time before it’s revealed to the reader.

In this type of situation, it’s important not to spend too much time inside a character’s head. It’s just not realistic to have a character with a huge secret who never thinks about it.

During action-heavy scenes. If there’s a lot of action going on, cutting away from it to explore a character’s mental or emotional reactions can be distracting and slow the pace.

 This doesn’t mean action scenes can’t be emotional – many of the best ones are intensely emotional. But it’s best to keep the emotions of an action scene simple and primal, e.g. shock, fear or rage. Hold off on exploring a character’s more complex reactions until the aftermath.

When you want a character to remain ambiguous. Mysterious characters are great for keeping readers on their toes. If you want an aspect of a character – their morals, their loyalties, their past – to remain shadowy, it’s best not to spend too much time inside their head.

I hope these tips were useful. As always, feel free to add your own!

Should I Make My Characters Cry?

Why is crying such a big deal? If a fictional character laughs, chances are the reader will barely notice it. But when it comes to crying, readers have all sorts of opinions. I’ve heard everything from “It’s annoying” to “A protagonist should never cry in the first half of the book” to “It’s good because it normalises expressing emotions.”

So I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of having characters burst into tears…

Crying baby

Pros

It can generate empathy. The most obvious advantage to having a character cry is that when it’s done well, the reader will feel every ounce of that character’s sadness, grief, frustration or hopelessness.

It can be cathartic. I recently read Stake Sauce by RoAnna Sylver. Don’t be fooled by the pun-tastic title – it’s an emotionally intense book. When the protagonist (who is bereaved and struggling with PTSD) finally had a good cry, it was such a relief. If your character goes through a lot, and negative emotions are allowed to build and build until the dam breaks and leaves them sobbing, the reader can often find this cathartic.

It can be good for character. People cry differently, and this is a great way of exploring character. Some things to think about include:-

  • What makes them cry? Do they have to be extremely sad? Do they cry when moved, e.g. by beautiful music? Is there one particular thing that’s guaranteed to set them off?
  • Who do they cry with? Do they only ever cry when they’re alone, or would they cry in front of friends?
  • How do they cry? Do they try desperately to hold the tears back, or do they just let go? Do they cry like a Hollywood starlet or have a proper ugly-cry? Are they one of those unnerving people who can turn the tears on and off at will?

Cons

It can come across as melodramatic. If a character cries often, or over things that aren’t particularly tragic or moving, the emotion can seemed forced. It’s a clear way of telling the reader “You should feel sad/moved at this point” but nobody likes being told how to feel, especially if they don’t feel that way.

 It can make a character seem weak. I hate this one because there’s nothing weak about crying. A few tears never stopped anyone getting shit done, but unfortunately we’re often brought up to think of crying as a sign of weakness. Readers may have a low tolerance for excessive vulnerability, especially in male characters. Which brings us nicely onto…

Gender-based bollocks. This is a phrase I find myself using often, so I’m going to shorten it to GBB. One of the most common complaints about women writing male characters is that women write men as too sensitive. If they cry often, or without the embarrassment around tears that men are brought up with, it can seem unrealistic.  That’s not to say that a female character can get away with crying over every little thing. She’ll risk readers seeing her as hysterical, or not up to the tasks facing her in the narrative.

So what do you think? Do your characters keep a stiff upper lip, or are you one of those meanies who loves to make your characters cry?

Top Ten Tuesday – Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Authors I’ve read the most books by

I like to think I have some good qualities as a reader. I’m open-minded in terms of genre, not remotely snobby (yay for the trashiest of trashy thrillers) and won’t give up on a book just because the first chapter doesn’t grab me. But one quality I seem to lack is loyalty.

Rather than commit to an author I like, I hop around between them, never getting too invested in any of them. For some of the authors on this list, I haven’t read more than four or five of their books. But for me, that’s a big commitment! Here are my top ten…

  1. Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl probably bears at least half the responsibility for my love of reading, dark humour and female villains! As a kid, I read almost all his children’s books and could recite whole chunks of James and the Giant Peach. But my favourite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because chocolate.

2. Jacqueline Wilson

Maybe I was a more loyal reader as a kid, because I read heaps of Jacqueline Wilson books along with the Roald Dahls. Looking back on them, I’m really impressed that she managed to write about heavy stuff like homelessness, mental illness and eating disorders in a way that was neither overly scary nor patronising.

3. Diana Gabaldon

I rarely read long series, but I’m hooked on the Outlander novels. I’ve been reading them since I was fourteen, which is maybe too young considering all the sex, violence, sexual violence, gory surgical scenes, etc. But I’m addicted to Jamie and Claire’s adventures, and the Lord John Grey series is just as good.

4. Margaret Attwood

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale as a seventeen-year-old, and the “particicution” scene was the most disturbing thing I’d ever read. It probably still is. Luckily, this didn’t put me off Attwood’s amazing writing. I’m not sure how many of her books I’ve read, but it’s a fair few. My personal favourite is The Robber Bride.

5. Philip Pullman

The His Dark Materials trilogy is brilliant, obviously, but he’s written plenty of other fantastic books.

6. JK Rowling

To address the big, transphobic elephant in the room, I am no longer a fan of JKR. But there will always be a special place in my heart for the Harry Potter series. The books and films are pure magic, and so is the wonderful, creative, diverse fandom.

7. Nicholas Evans

I think that reading Nicholas Evans at thirteen was the first time I consciously recognised “good writing”. Specifically, I noticed his ability to get right inside the minds of his characters and give each one a distinctive voice, and was very impressed.

8. Jane Austen

Austen didn’t write many novels but I’ve read all of them. It wasn’t exactly love at first read because I used to get frustrated with the stifling, judgemental world her characters inhabit. But then I realised that in many ways, it’s not so different from 21st century Britain, and I finally started to appreciate Austen’s subtle satire.

9. Patrick O’Brian

O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series has about 20 books and I’m not even halfway through it. But I’m fully committed to finishing it because this shit is amazing! It has oodles of old-school adventure, plus brilliantly written characters, lots of humour and a complex, heart-warming central friendship.

10. Terry Pratchett

I was a latecomer to Sir Terry’s satirical fantasy. I read The Colour of Magic a few years ago and I’m still playing catch-up with his series of 41(!) Discworld novels. My favourite so far is the festive classic, Hogfather.

I’m kind of annoyed with myself that certain authors haven’t made it onto this list. Why haven’t I read more Zadie Smith? Surely Neil Gaiman should be on there? If you’ll excuse me, I have A LOT of reading to do.

Meanwhile, have you read any of these authors? Are any of them on your top ten list?

Write Like An Animal: Five Reasons To Write From An Animal’s Perspective

 

I don’t consider myself an animal lover. Sure, some of them are beautiful and all of them are fascinating. But mosquitoes spread malaria, swans are vicious bastards and a donkey once bit me. I’ll never be a person who goes gooey over everything with more than two legs.

But when it comes to books written from an animal’s perspective, I can’t get enough of them. From The Call of the Wild to Fantastic Mr Fox, I find they can do things that books written from a human perspective can’t quite manage. Here are my top five reasons to try writing from an animal’s perspective.

Wolf

  1. Animals are ideal observers

If you’re looking for a narrator who can observe human drama without getting caught up in it, an animal is ideal. Small or domesticated animals can get into the most exclusive of spaces unseen or unnoticed.

It’s no coincidence that many animal narrators are dogs. Their lives are so intertwined with those of their human owners that if they could talk, all sorts of secrets would probably come spilling out.

  1. They can evoke more sympathy than humans

I’m currently working on a novel in which the main character’s pet rabbit meets an untimely end. The same is true of several human characters but I’m most worried about reader reactions to the bunny. People are notoriously sentimental about animals and writers have even received death threats because they’ve treated their animal characters badly.

But a skilful writer can turn this to her advantage. It’s often easier to make someone care about an animal than a human, so put an animal protagonist – especially a small, relatively helpless one – in just the right amount of peril and readers will be hooked.

  1. Animal protagonists can highlight the strangeness of human behaviour

Humans are weird. Who better to point this out than an animal? This can be done for comedic effect – think Angela Carter’s Puss in Boots being amused by human shyness about nudity – or it can be used to make a serious point. Which leads us nicely onto…

  1. Animals are great for social satire

What better way to deliver biting social commentary than in a charming story about animals? It certainly worked for George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an allegory for the Russian revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

It also works for more gentle satire like The Wind in the Willows, which is ostensibly about a mole, a rat, a badger and a toad, but is actually about a bunch of middle class Englishmen trying to curb the excesses of their upper class friend.

  1. You can explore the relationships between animals and humans

We humans have a pretty bizarre relationship with animals. We love them, fear them, eat them, consider them part of the family or pests to be eradicated. We have so many strong emotions about animals, and an animal protagonist is an ideal way of exploring these.

A good portrayal of a loving, mutually beneficial relationship between human and animal can be profoundly moving. But if you want to tell a darker story, there are plenty of exploitative relationships and predator/prey dynamics to explore. Can you imagine what it’s like to be hunted or farmed for meat? That’s some proper horror novel stuff.

So, would you ever write from an animal’s perspective? And what is your favourite book with an animal protagonist?

The Grad Student Book Tag

Jillian the Bookish Butterfly has created this book tag for grad students, and since I’m studying for a MSc in Science Communication, I thought I’d give it a shot. Let’s get cracking!

Picking an Area of Study

What’s your favourite books and/or series from each of your favourite genres?

Argh! I’m useless at picking favourites. I’m useless at picking areas of study, too. I couldn’t decide between Psychology and Biology for my BSc, so I studied them both as a joint honours. I like a lot of different genres, but I’ll narrow it down to three.

Literary: I’m going with NW, because Zadie Smith is the queen and this book is pure magic. A weirdly constructed tale of London life, with a strong but complicated female friendship at its core.

NW

Fantasy: For magic of a far more literal kind, I’d pick Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It’s a masterpiece! The TV series is pretty good too.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Mystery/thriller: I’m going with a timeless classic for this one – The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

GRE

What book or books did you feel like you really had to focus on when you were reading and/or you had a hard time concentrating on?

What the heck is a GRE? I’m guessing it’s an American thing. In terms of books that I struggled to focus on, one that springs to mind is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It just didn’t click.

Heart of Darkness

Juggling Work and School

What book took you too long to read and why?

This is probably true of half the readers of the world, but it took me way too long to read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I enjoyed parts of it (there’s some gorgeous descriptive writing) but it reeeeeally drags in the middle.

Moby Dick

Too Much Homework

Name a book you did not hate, but did not love.

I’m going with The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Basically, I’m aro as hell and find romance a bit dull, even when it’s gay and set in ancient Greece.

Song of Achilles

Research Projects

How do you decide what book you want to read next off your TBR?

I’m a mood reader, but also a seasonal reader. Spring is for getting my teeth stuck into a good, complex literary novel or historical fiction. Summer is for classic adventure stories and nostalgic re-reads of YA and MG. Autumn means snuggling up with a cuppa and a fantasy novel, and winter just cries out for noir-ish thrillers.

Writing Papers

What book, in your opinion, has the best writing?

Oh shit, that’s a big question. I’m going to go with the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. And no, I’m not going to pick one, that’s literally impossibly.

Neapolitan novels

The weird thing is, it’s not the kind of writing I usually enjoy. It’s almost entirely humourless and the only dialogue is brief and terse. But the depth of thought and feeling Ferrante conveys is phenomenal – it’s like seeing someone’s life through a microscope. I’m in awe.

Studying

What’s a book you stayed up way too late reading?

In my third year of uni, I completely f*cked up my body clock. Not by staying out partying, but by staying up until stupid o’clock reading the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. They’re so addictive! And so chunky, you can read for hours and not get halfway through. I think Voyager is the one that turned me fully nocturnal.

Voyager

No Social Life

What fiction character do you think would make the best study buddy?

My first impulse was to go for a “genius” character like Sherlock Holmes. But if someone is just naturally brilliant, that means they aren’t necessarily good at studying. Give me a study buddy who has a good brain but got where they are by working their arse off. Elena Greco from the Neapolitan novels is a prime example.

Elena Greco

Final Projects

In your opinion, what book was the best series finale?

Honestly, I read very few series. I’m a commitment-phobe! I think I’ll go with The Deathly Hallows, for sentimental reasons.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I’m not such a fan of JKR these days (specifically her views on trans issues) but I’ll always be a fan of Harry Potter. Like so many people, I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and the idea of three teenagers standing up to the biggest evil imaginable still moves me.

 Getting that Master’s Degree

What’s the most books you have bought at once?

Not many, I’m a cheapskate. Four or five?

If you’re a grad student, consider yourself tagged! I’m also tagging you if you’re in your final year of uni, or your first year out of uni.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books That Give Off Summer Vibes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Books That Give Off Summer Vibes

  1. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

An obvious choice, perhaps, since it’s got “summer” right there in the title. But this is, to me, a perfect summer read. It’s beautifully sensual and it thoughtfully explores the natural world.

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island

Summer is the ideal time for reading classic adventure stories, and they don’t come more classic than Treasure Island.

3. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

A book generally feels “summery” to me if it’s set somewhere hot and dry. And since I live in the UK, I consider most places hot and dry. This book has such a strong sense of place, you can practically feel the Alabama heat radiating off the pages. And though it has some dark themes, it’s also full of human warmth.

4. The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

The Undomestic Goddess

Summer is (in theory) all about relaxing, and this book is a fun and frothy story about a stressed-out woman embracing a slower pace of life. An excellent beach read.

5. Just William by Richmal Crompton

Just William

Remember those long, carefree summers of childhood? William and his gang of friends – “The Outlaws” – will take you right back there.

6. The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

The Horse Whisperer

This book makes me want to ride horses, go camping and take a road trip across America. A lovely, outdoorsy book.

7. The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

The God of Animals

The God of Animals has some similarities with The Horse Whisperer. But it’s a more cynical book, and the summer heat suffusing its pages is often prickly and uncomfortable. Still, it’s a fantastic coming-of-age novel.

8. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens

This is the breeziest, most feel-good book about the apocalypse you’re ever likely to read. Everything about it – from the heartwarming central friendship to the gloriously silly humour – puts me in a good mood.

9. The Exiles by Hilary McKay

The Exiles

A good middle grade novel never gets old, and The Exiles will always have a special place in my heart. It’s about four naughty sisters going to stay with their formidable Grandma for the summer, and causing all sorts of chaos.

10. The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates

The Darling Buds of May

Is May part of spring or summer? Either way, this book is literary Prozac. There’s no better way to spend a summer afternoon than hanging out with the Larkin family – picking strawberries, drinking very strong cocktails and eating way too much delicious food.

Have you read any of these? And which are your favourite books to read in summer?

Five Tips for Writing a “Retelling” of a Classic

Classic novels

Several years ago, I had a brilliant idea. I was going to write a modern-day retelling of my favourite Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey. It would be YA of course, since the protagonist, Catherine Morland, is only 17. It would be full of mystery and romance and would probably become a bestseller.

Just after finishing the first draft, I discovered that the famous crime writer Val McDermid had already done exactly that. Damn. But it just goes to show – everyone loves a modern retelling of a classic.

It combines familiarity with novelty, allowing us to experience well-loved characters and plots in a new and intriguing way. If you’re interested in writing your own retelling of a classic, here are my five top tips…

  1. Choose wisely

Learn from my mistake! If you’re planning on publishing, you need to make sure you’re not writing a retelling that’s already been retold a hundred times. Instead of choosing a very well-known novel like Pride and Prejudice, or a familiar fairy tale like Cinderella, why not go for something a little more niche?

You could try a less well-known work by a famous author – perhaps one that has never been adapted for TV or film. Or how about a quirky folk tale instead of something that’s already been tackled by Disney?

If you’re going to retell something well-known, you’ll need to do something extra special to help it stand out. Don’t forget, you’re basically writing fanfiction (I’m not being snobby. Fanfic is great, it’s just that it’s usually written for free!) so to impress a publisher or agent, you’ll need to do something very new and original with the story.

  1. Don’t do too much “fixing”

Sometimes, with modern retellings or adaptations, I get the impression that the writer has said to herself “People who don’t know any better think the original is a timeless masterpiece. But it’s actually got a lot of shitty parts and I’m going to fix them all.”

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not a purist, and writers should never be a slave to canon. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking timelines, exploring events that happen “off the page”, fleshing out minor characters or pushing others into the background.

But remember that your readers are likely to be people who like, or love, the original. You have to remain true to the spirit of the book, and major changes to the storyline – for example, making the heroine end up with a different love interest because you always thought he was way sexier – is guaranteed to piss off your readers.

  1. Don’t be too smug about being from the 21st century

In some of the old classics, much of the drama and conflict comes from social rules and restrictions that don’t seem to apply to 21st century western society. When a working class lad suffers the consequences of trying to rise above his station, or a young lady is ruined after a seduction, it can be tempting to dismiss this as irrelevant to modern audiences.

But the attitude of “None of that stuff happens now, so I’ll just ignore that part” leads to missed opportunities. Yes, things have improved for a lot of people. But women still get shamed for being sexually active, and kids from council estates still face huge barriers to career success.

The old rules and prejudices are still there, under the surface – they’re just expressed in a more subtle form. And social scandal is very much present in the digital age! With a little tweaking, even seemingly dated parts of a story can become relevant.

  1. Character is timeless

Characters are so often the reason that readers fall in love with a book, and it’s important that the main characters in your story are recognisable descendants of their original counterparts. You can change the time and place they’re living in, change their job, appearance, race or gender. But you should never lose sight of their core personality traits.

If you have a soft spot for a particular character, it might be tempting to iron out their flaws or change their more questionable decisions. There may even be legitimate reasons for this (If Jane Eyre were written for a modern audience, people might not be so keen on Mr Rochester keeping his mentally ill first wife hidden in an attic).

But once again, it’s important not to do too much fixing. Genuinely flawed characters are enduring because readers have related to them and learnt from them for centuries. And let’s face it, perfectly-behaved characters are often dull as dishwater.

  1. Include plenty of treats for hardcore fans

Some readers of a retelling will only have a vague awareness of the original work. But other readers will be superfans who know it inside out, and are likely to demand a little more bang for their buck.

Rather than just writing your own story that vaguely sticks to the plot of the original, try to include references to less well-known parts of the story, such as minor characters and subplots. This means there are plenty of in-jokes to entertain readers who are well-acquainted with the original.

However, it’s important to strike a balance and not go too far in the other direction. If every single sentence is a nod to something in the original work, it’s likely to be incomprehensible to those who haven’t read it.

 

Those are my five top tips for writing a retelling of a classic – feel free to add your own tips in the comments.

 

To F*ck, Or Not To F*ck: That Is The Question

Sex scenes. Is there any other type of scene that causes writers so much stress? Sure, some of us struggle with dialogue and others can’t get the hang of action scenes, but the idea of putting our characters in bed together leaves many of us sweaty and shaky. And not in a good way.

Then again, maybe I’m biased. I’m asexual (I don’t experience sexual attraction) so writing a sex scene tends to make me feel like I’m faking it. The mechanics are easy enough to grasp, but the emotions behind it – especially when they’re mixed up with love – are a bit of a mystery.

Disclaimer: Not all asexual people feel this way. Some aces are both confident and talented at writing sex scenes. There are even some openly asexual erotica authors.

So, what are the benefits of including sex scenes in fiction? Is it actually worth the trouble, or should we be keeping our characters’ bedroom doors firmly closed? Without further ado, let’s pro/con this shit.

Pros

Some readers expect sex scenes

Some readers will inevitably feel cheated if the characters they’ve been shipping from page one don’t have sex, or if they only have sex “off the page”. Sometimes this is justified. For example, if the book is marketed as a “high heat” romance, the reader is entitled to expect more than a peck on the cheek.

Sometimes it’s less clear-cut. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, you need to consider how you’re portraying a couple or potential couple. If their connection is mainly emotional, intellectual or spiritual, it’s fine to avoid sex scenes.

But if you endlessly emphasise their physical attraction to each other and describe every lingering glance or touch in great detail, but fade to black after they finally kiss, this may feel like an anti-climax (no pun intended) to the reader.

They can make readers take a relationship seriously

Does a relationship magically become more serious, intense or committed after sex? No. Are readers likely to take the relationship more seriously if the people involved have some really good sex? Yes.

Show two characters who are clearly “sexually compatible” and many readers will instantly think they are soulmates. I dunno, it’s a weird quirk of non-asexual people, but there’s no getting around it.

Sex scenes can break taboos

Sex in the mainstream media is often pretty samey in terms of who’s doing it and how they’re doing it. You could be forgiven for thinking the only people who have sex are young, conventionally attractive straight people, and the only kind of sex they have is missionary-position PIV stuff.

If you’re feeling brave, you can write sex scenes that break taboos. Whether it’s writing sex scenes between LGBT+ characters or people with underrepresented body types, or confronting society’s hang-ups (there are a million of them, from kink to female body hair) a good sex scene can tackle stigmas in a really powerful way.

Sex scenes in YA can explore important issues

Some people feel that sex has no place in YA books. Personally, I disagree. Books are an ideal way of exploring the emotional side of sex, including crucial issues like consent. Sex in YA books is likely to be more realistic than porn, and more engaging than a sex education class. Also, it’s low pressure. If a teen feels uncomfortable, they can just put the book down.

Cons

Sex scenes get too much attention

Okay, let’s move on to the negatives. Firstly, sex scenes tend to draw a reader’s focus. So much so that they can often distract attention from other, more important parts of the book.

When I wrote my first novel, it contained one sex scene. It was one and a half paragraphs long, and non-graphic. It wasn’t particularly good, particularly bad, or particularly crucial to the plot. When I showed the first draft to a friend, can you guess what the first scene he remarked on was? Yep.

This is a pretty universal experience for writers, with sex scenes receiving way more scrutiny than other scenes. There’s even a “Bad Sex Award” dedicated to mocking clumsy writing about sex. There’s no “Crappy Dialogue Award” or “Unrealistic Fight Scene Award”.

It’s easy to lose sight of character

Because of the physicality of sex, and because certain things are supposed to happen in a certain order, it can be all too easy for a writer to lose sight of character. Some writers manage to avoid this, but there are many sex scenes that could be literally any two characters having sex.

There’s no nice word for “pubes”

Finding the right words for body parts when writing a sex scene is a nightmare. You’ve basically got three choices:-

  • Use dirty words (you know the ones) and risk sounding crude or pornographic.
  • Use anatomical terms like “penis” and “vagina” and risk sounding like a Biology textbook.
  • Use coy euphemisms like “length” and “entrance” and risk sounding like a giggly Edwardian chambermaid.

People have A LOT of opinions about sex

This is hardly a newsflash, but people have very strong opinions about sex. And yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but let’s be honest – some of those opinions are f*cking stupid.

You could write the most beautiful, heartfelt sex scene imaginable. But if it’s between two men, two women, two fat people or any number of people other than two, some reader somewhere is going to kick off.

Readers also disagree strongly about sex in fiction. Some think sex scenes don’t belong in any genre except erotica, while others think a romance without sex is prudish and pointless. It’s a bit of a no-win situation.

 

Okay, we’ve got equal pros and cons so far, so I’m leaving it up to you to break the tie. What’s the verdict on writing sex scenes? Do you? Would you ever?  What is a sexy word for “pubes”? Help a girl out here!

Top Ten Tuesday – Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

Top Ten Tuesday – Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

If I had to choose between books and bands, I’d choose books. But only just! Here are my top ten, totally imaginary, book-named bands.

1. I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel would make a great name for a sensitive indie band with awkward charm and whimsical lyrics.

2. Autonomous

Autonomous

In contrast, Autonomous would be an industrial music band who take pride in making your ears bleed.

3. Gone Girl(s)

Gone Girl

Pop a “s” on the end of the title and it becomes a good name for a 90s riot grrrl band.

4. Kings of the Wyld

Kings of the Wyld

These guys would play swaggering stadium rock, plus some more intimate acoustic numbers with mystical, pagan vibes. My dad would adore them.

5. The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife

If The Velvet Underground wasn’t called The Velvet Underground, it would be called The Subtle Knife.

6. The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck’s classic might be a serious novel, but I always thought the title was kind of funny. Aren’t grapes like, the least angry fruit? This would be a pop-punk band with a lot of rage but a sense of humour too.

7. Dracula

Dracula

A darkly glamorous band. Lots of eyeliner, black lace and sexual ambiguity.

8. The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers

This would be an all-female, hipsterish folk band. They would write the kind of lyrics that make you do mental gymnastics before you can understand them.

9. Wise Blood

Wise Blood

Woozy, bluesy swamp-rock.

10. Hogfather

Hogfather

Terry Pratchett’s Christmas classic would make a perfect name for a heavy metal band.

 

Which of these awesome imaginary bands would you listen to?

Four Ways of Cannibalising Your Own Work

Hannibal

It’s a harsh fact of the writing life that many perfectly good pieces won’t get published. No amount of editing, tweaking and polishing will make an agent or publisher want to pounce. What should you do with these pieces? Let them gather dust and weep bitter tears of frustration over them every so often? Totally valid choice.

But you could always cannibalise them. This means taking the material that works, and using it to create something new. Here are four ideas for how to do this…

Pick an old piece and do the cringe test

Feeling brave? Find a really old piece. Maybe even something you wrote while you were still at school. Now read it, and discard all the parts that make you cringe. Consider what’s left over. Even inexperienced writers can have great ideas, and there could be something here that you can use as a promising starting point for a new piece.

Choose a different perspective

Sometimes it’s good to look at a narrative through the eyes of a character other than your protagonist. What do things look like from the antagonist’s perspective? How about a relatively minor character? Are any of these viewpoints worth exploring?

You might even come to realise that a different character was the “secret protagonist” all along. This happens when you feel under pressure to write a protagonist who is like you (e.g. the same gender, age, etc.) or a protagonist who fits the mould of a traditional hero. But you may find there is a “background” character who you relate to more strongly.

Blend two pieces together

When combining two or more pieces, I recommend just going absolutely nuts and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Blend two poems together to create an unholy super-poem.
  • Write crossover fanfiction of your own work, and let characters from vastly different worlds interact.
  • Combine the setting of one fictional piece with the storyline of another.
  • Take a subplot from one story and see if it works in a different one.

Ask “What happens next?”

This can work particularly well with short stories. Sometimes the ending of a short story is actually just the ending of chapter 1 of a novel. Ask yourself whether the protagonist has unfinished business, or whether certain events in the story would have set other things in motion.

A word of caution, though – be wary of creating stories with too many climaxes (yes, such a thing exists, believe it or not) or twists. This can lessen the impact for the reader, causing them to lose interest.

Have fun!

There’s really no point in being precious about work that hasn’t sold. There’s also no point in being embarrassed about it – a lack of publication doesn’t mean a lack of merit. Make sure you have a back-up copy, and then do whatever the hell you like with it. You have nothing to lose, and could end up creating something fantastic.

Have you ever tried any of these techniques? Do you have any others you’d recommend?