Category Archives: The Compass Rose

Writing about Sex

I have a list of things I want to blog about someday. I write them down–the ones I can remember long enough to write down–so I don’t forget them. For instance, I do want to write about the TIME Magazine article “Who killed the love story?” But not today.

And the son, who is home from university this week, found my list and wrote on it: Monkeys in Outer Space bent on destroying zuwieroiyushamnn At least that’s what I think he wrote on it. And I may write a blog about monkeys in outer space bent on destroying…whatever… But not today.

Today, I’m going to blog about sex. Specifically, about writing about sex in novels. See, I got a note on my Shelfari Shelf from a friend who said that she was “unimpressed” by the One Rose books because she didn’t like books that “focus so completely around sex.”

Which took me totally aback, because I certainly didn’t think the books at all focused so completely around sex. I’ve read books that focus completely around sex, and believe me, they have a LOT more sex than the Rose books do.

The Compass Rose has only three fully consummated love scenes in it. It has a few more “sex by magic” (sorta like phone sex, only without the phone) scenes, and the characters talk about sex a lot. Because the books are about men and women who care about each other, who have a relationship–who are married to each other, to be more exact–and who have different understandings from each other about relationships and about sex and how the world works. And I firmly believe that to put people in that kind of situation and NOT address the sex issue would have been nothing less than a flat out lie.

(The Barbed Rose has more sex, as does The Eternal Rose, because in those books, the relationships are on-going and more fully developed. By the time The Eternal Rose begins, seven years have passed since the beginning of The Compass Rose. The characters have been married for that long. Sex is going to be a part of those relationships.)

All those books that have men and women traveling together on a quest for months to retrieve the Magic Hoohah and save the world–and the characters Never Even Think About Sex–are just plain lying, IMO.

People think about sex. They have sex. They screw up their lives because they try to ignore sex and they can’t. Or they screw up their lives because they have sex with anything that moves and never figure out why they’re lonely. Sex is a part of life. It’s a huge part of life, and I think that novelists–in whatever genre they write–should address it, if they’re comfortable with it.

In speculative fiction, like fantasy and science fiction, it’s possible to explore a greater range of “what ifs” than in novels set in contemporary or historical times, and exploration is a good thing, I think. If I’m ever able to write more books set in the One Rose universe, I can see Kallista’s children complaining that it’s hard enough to find one person willing to put up with your faults–

I do understand that sex is a private part of life and that some people are uncomfortable with a discussion, or even a portrayal of something so intensely private and intimate. I understand that some people have moral issues with reading about sex. Personal opinions are just that. Personal opinions. And everyone’s entitled to have them. Which is why I left the note up on my Shelfari page and didn’t delete it. Tanis has every right to not like books with much sex in them, and every right to express her opinion.

But I did want to explain why I wrote the books the way I did, and why I write about sex, and there’s not a way to respond to a note on one’s own page, and I didn’t want to stick a note on her page without any context, so I came here to share my philosophy of writing about sex with the world–or at least as much of the world as comes by to read my blog.

I’m still waiting for my copies of The Eternal Rose… Sigh.

Talking about Show and Tell

Laura Shin said this on The Pink Ladies Blog: “Take “show and tell.” Some writers avoid narrative introspection because they’ve been told that’s telling. Yet, I would in most cases rather know what a character is thinking—her reaction—and not read generic physical actions that are supposed to show me how she’s affected.”

Sometimes I think this avoidance-of-narrative-introspection is a “guy writer” thing. Something that E. Hemingway started–and I blame him for a lot of stuff. For the stripped-down writing style that has been so popular, for one thing. And for the “girl-cooties” school of thought about “litrachure.” It’s not that I am fond of purple prose, but it does sometimes seem that all metaphors and adjectives are now considered suspect in certain circles. Ah well.

I tend to blame television and movies for the lack of internal reaction in novels today, not the “show vs. tell” issue. If we’re in deep POV, the thoughts and emotions are showing, though they can seem like telling, I suppose. These days, a lot of newbie authors, the ones I judge in contests, tend not to go on and on with backstory and what the characters are thinking– they’ve been trained out of that, I suppose. Lately, I’ve seen the pendulum swing too far the other way. They write prose that reads a lot like a screenplay, with dialog, action, and nothing else. Which means a lot of the characters’ motivations for their actions are completely missing.

If we don’t get what the character thinks about something, or how they feel about something– about who a person is, or what that person does, or about what they themselves do–then we don’t get to know who this character is, and we don’t know why they do what they do, and without knowing the character and understanding them, we don’t care what happens to them. We have to explain what’s going on inside a character’s head. It doesn’t take a whole lot. Just…enough.

Here’s an excerpt from the first of my Rose books, The Compass Rose, to demonstrate what I mean. (I’ll put the internal reaction in another color to make it easier to spot):

Torchay had changed out of his finery into old trousers, his tunic off against the heat as he worked through his bodyguard exercises.

“Don’t you usually do that earlier in the day?” Kallista tossed her pendant on the table beside the big bed and kicked off her shoes.

“I did.” He finished the flowing form he was doing and stopped. The faint sheen of sweat over his lean musculature tempted her eyes to look, to drink their fill. “I felt like doing it again. I didn’t expect to see you before dawn.”

“Yes, well…” She tugged her fingers free of the thin snug leather and pulled her gloves off, flexing her sweaty hands in the slightly cooler air. “Didn’t work out.”

Torchay walked toward the table. Kallista backed off. She couldn’t bear being so close to him. Not now. He poured water from the pitcher into a cup and drank it, then poured the rest into the basin and splashed it on his face. Kallista watched his every move.

When he had dried his face with the flimsy towel, he turned and saw Kallista watching. “Can I ask you somethi—? No.” He shook his head. “Never mind.” He hung the towel up and reached for his hair to release his queue.

“What?” Kallista loosened the laces of her dress tunic. “If you have a question, ask it. You know you can ask me anything.”

“Can I?”

She looked up and saw his gaze focused on her. The candlelight reflecting from his eyes made them glow with blue flame. She lost herself in them for a moment before she recalled he’d asked her a question. “Yes, of course. Anything.”

Once more he hesitated, seeming to look for something as he gazed at her, but what, Kallista didn’t know. [I put all this in a different color, because part of it is what K. thinks he’s doing.]

“All right,” he said finally. “I will.” He ran his fingers through his unbound hair and it fell in waves around his face, crimson in the candlelight. “When you have gone out hunting all these years—“ He paused for a deep breath, looking away only an instant. “When you have hunted a man, why did you never choose me?”

Kallista swayed, Torchay’s question touching unseen things deep inside her, drawing her tight, opening her up. Her nipples beaded beneath the brocade weave of her dress and she tucked her hands beneath her arms, more as a guard against unwanted magic than an attempt to hide her body’s reaction. [all of the previous is a physical reaction–with a teensy bit of explanation, but after is where we get the true emotional reaction.] Why did he have to ask her that question now? Now when she wanted him so much it made her mouth dry and other places all too wet?

“I— It’s not that—“ Goddess, what could she say that wouldn’t either insult him or encourage him?

Torchay waited, his face an impassive mask, candlelight licking over his sculpted form, tempting her to do the same. She curled her hands into fists against the urge to touch.

See? Most of it is action and dialogue. But the internal reaction is sprinkled in with it, and that’s all you need. Not a whole lot, but enough to expand on what is physically happening. You need both. The action and dialog AND the internal reaction–mental and emotional–to the action.

When I judge contests, I often feel like a psychoanalyst for the characters, given all the times I’m writing “Why?” or “And what does he feel about that?” Those things do need to be included. Not over pages and pages, but all the way through every bit of it.