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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Licking Fire

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Writing about sex is not for the fainthearted. No matter how you approach it, someone will squirm and someone else will mock and someone else will throw the book away. Which is why a lot of authors punt, they play it like the old movies, a look, a touch, an intimation, and then cut to the next morning. But if it's done right, well . . ..

There's been a bit a kerfuffle going on about modern day sex writing. Katie Roiphe wrote an article worth reading in the New York Times complaining that modern writers, specifically modern male writers, don't do it as well as the old guys did it. I'm not sure I agreed, her selection of writers was pretty narrow, but it got people talking. And now, Sonya Chung has offered an interesting reply. The rules of sex writing she gives are fun, as long as you remember that rules are meant to be broken. But the best thing she does is bring James Salter into the argument.

Salter is simply one of the greatest American writers. His war writing is stellar, his short stories are models of the craft, and his memoir, Burning the Days, is one of the greatest things written in the last century. And yes he writes brilliantly about sex in Sport and a Pastime, as well as in all his other work. You should read him, no one writes like him. There is a scene in his memoir where he is having sex with a beautiful Italian women in a grand hotel, a great moment. But at the same time, there are reports about a mission to the moon. And Salter had been a fighter pilot and had given it up to lead this other, different life. And even as he is having this ravishing sex, he is acutely aware of what he has given up, and how all these young pilots who stayed pilots are accomplishing great things that he will never accomplish. And he feels small, and inconsequential. But at the same time he is gleefully pointing out to the reader, hey, I'm having sex with this fabulous woman, what about that. Such a deep, layered moment, and only Salter could do it justice.

Read the masters, and James Salter is one of them.

The Meat of Things

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I'm revising the beginning of my new novel, so let's talk about beginnings.

Where does a story begin? At the moment when things change. There is always something that gets the ball rolling, what is called the inciting incident. Before then life is as it ever was; after it is never the same again. (If you can't say that then you don't have a story.) It can be the finding of a dead body, meeting the girl that changes your life, getting notified of a tragedy, have the comely new client walk into your office. Generally, the closer you start at that incident, the better.

The novel I'm working on is about three friends who keep in touch religiously, once a week, just to say hello, just to say that everything is fine. Just to let each other know that they've still gotten away with it. What the it is doesn't matter yet, just the calls. The story begins when a call from one of the friends in Vegas doesn't come. That failure to call is right there on the first page. Right after that our hero is winging out to Vegas. The story has begun. Bam.

Writers have a great desire, though, to show life as it was in the before so that the contrast with the after can seem so much bigger. It's an impulse that should be stifled, like comments in the movie theater. Sometimes there are fifty pages of life as it was before the crash of events begin, and sometimes the reader only gets to thirty before she puts the book down. No matter how good those fifty pages are, they are not worth the waiting. Writers do all this work, create all this background, and then want to show it off. Don't.

James Cameron put the script of Avatar on the web. The script differs from the movie in a couple of ways, and one of the ways is the very beginning. The script starts with our hero, Jake, on earth, in a bar, in his wheelchair. He's feeling miserable, bitter. He sees a guy at the bar beating on a girl, everyone turns away, but not Jake. He wheels over and beats the crap out of the guy. Then he gets thrown out of the bar, his wheelchair thrown out after, landing with a clatter. Jake is sitting in the alley, with his useless legs among all the garbage, ruminating on the misery of his life, when two guys in suits show up. The guys in the suits have an offer for him, an offer that starts the story. It's not a bad scene, a little devoid of subtlety, sure, but surely serviceable. But as you can see, until the guys with the suits show up, it has nothing to do with our story. It is all before stuff. Cameron cut it. And here's the thing, nothing was lost in the cutting. Everything we need to know about Jake we learn in the story itself.

Whatever you can cut without losing anything of real value should be cut. That's usually all the before stuff.

Start at the beginning, not before..