Chapter 12 divorced 11, and 13 and 14 don’t want to be separated because they’re fornicating, so you get a triple shot this week. Brace yourself; it’s going to be a wordy one.
Subjects touched upon herein: character arc, something in my eye, an overblown construction metaphor, flames on the side of my face, echoes, foreshadowing, stage-2 gardening, and touching up, on, here, and in because SMUTNASTY PORNYTIMES!
I am filled with solutions!
“Know-It-Tal” was a duh-obviously addition on the final editing pass. Jules calls Tally a know-it-all later, and I wanted to emphasize the “all of the answers, none of the results” thing by adding “this goes back all the way to childhood” to the existing “other people’s problems seemed so simple to her, so easily resolved when viewed through the twin lenses of distance and practicality” in Chapter 12.
Once Tally sees a solution, she’s blind to other options. And because she’s used to looking at a problem and seeing an obvious solution, if no solution is immediately obvious, she thinks the situation is impossible. Survivors of abuse commonly suck it up and endure until something in their environment changes (a grim undertaking in a place with “Where Nothing Ever Changes!” on the welcome sign with “EXCEPT TO GET WORSE” as a spray-painted addendum) rather than waste their energy looking for escape routes that weren’t there five minutes or five weeks or five years ago under the same circumstances and aren’t likely to be there now, either. Why get your hopes up when that energy can be better used for survival?
With Ben, she jumps on the first solution (taking him to get gas), but she does, belatedly, recognize there were three other options (his mom, Shane, taking his money and bringing him a gallon and change). Later, she’ll have a slightly speedier delayed recognition of other options with Jules. This gradual broadening of her ability to see more than one solution sets her up for, much later, seeing a way out of what she’s believed for a long time to be an impossible situation, which turns out to be entirely possible once she’s motivated and determined to change it.
She won’t be “fixed” two months from now, when the story ends, but she takes steps toward looking differently at problems and asking for help and trusting other people to support her, and those steps are designed to give you hope that she’s walking into a happier future.
In case you missed the previous post, Chapter 11 was, um, disheartening for me. If I had felt the same way about Chapter 12, I would have erased all my files and burned the paper trail and possibly thrown myself on the pyre, so distraught was I.
Fortunately, Chapter 12 was more agreeable to work with. I’m not saying there was never a point at which we had a difference of opinion, but we were able to resolve our petty disagreements without hair pulling and kidney punching. Nary a table was flipped.
Toward the end of Chapter 12, I even got a little teary-eyed while reading, and Chapter 12 put its arm around me and said, “See? That’s what’s supposed to happen here. That’s effective writing. You’re not completely incompetent after all.”
It had always been so hard to see any path that didn’t lead straight to him. He was a beacon in the blackest night, and she would run to him again and again because there was no welcome for her anywhere else.
That was originally an overt lighthouse allusion, complete with crashing into him, but it was out of line because lighthouses don’t have much of a place in the Midwest (unless you’re in Chickentown, Minnesota, and last I checked, I’m not Clive Barker and this isn’t Abarat).
It’s still a little overwrought, but a little overwrought isn’t out of line in this particular instance because it’s consistent with Tally getting emotional about the isolation she’s dealt with all her life.
He had always made every other part of her life seem unbearable, even if she’d been bearing just fine in his absence.
She has normalized sucking it up and enduring. She’s handling it, not catatonic in a corner, so it can’t be that bad. And if it’s not that bad, it’s better than it could be, so she should appreciate how good she has it instead of whining about it (which is the kind of thing abusers love to tell their victims).
And then this goofy boy with beautiful eyes and a heart-stopping smile flings himself into her world and shines his light everywhere, and she can’t unsee how ugly and broken her life is, which makes it harder for her to pretend everything’s fine, it’s normal, she can handle it.
He made her yearn for better.
He made her hope. To the chronically disappointed, that’s cruelty. There’s safety in hopelessness. It’s much harder to be hurt when you expect the worst from people.
He was the only better that had ever been within her reach, and here he was again, close enough to touch, when the rest of her life was unbearable.
A couple of chapters back, she thought she’d learned her lesson about grasping at shiny things, but he’s right there. How can she not reach out to him?
Given her lifetime of experience being wounded by those closest to her, how can she not disguise how desperately she needs that contact by framing it as something crude?
Intro to Scene
A scene is not writing down some stuff that happens until you feel like changing point-of-view character or location and put a couple of hard returns and start a new section of writing down some other stuff that happens.
Scenes are the building blocks of narrative storytelling. It’s possible to stack any bunch of bricks and make something that looks like a wall, but it’s going to fall apart the first time somebody sneezes on it. If, however, you want to build a wall that will withstand sneezes and the elements and the passage of time, you’re going to have to devote more attention to both your materials and your construction skills.
Every how-to-write book/workshop/webinar/something-to-sell espouses its own formula for scene composition. Many of them are good. Rigidly adhering to any one of them, I believe, is a mistake. I advocate using whichever scene composition or combination thereof works best for that particular scene. The needs of your story are more important than obedience to any writing sensei.
(And if you think stories don’t have needs because they’re not even inanimate objects, they’re just imaginary, you’re doing them wrong. If you’re up to your metaphorical elbows in story viscera and don’t feel it’s alive, rejecting what doesn’t belong in it and crying for what’s missing, please call the time of death, close the incision, and go do something that requires less sensitivity than exposing and poking at an aspect of the shared human experience.)
Whether it’s a goal-conflict-disaster scene or a turn-of-value scene or some other scene recipe, any source worth listening to agrees that the essential ingredient in all scenes is change. Change comes about through the logical sequence of events depicted within that scene. The characters put one foot in front of the other, they walk, they run, they crawl, they zig, they zag, they stumble off cliffs, they get dragged through the woods by an amorous Sasquatch… and at the end of the scene, their lives have changed, internally or externally or both. If there’s no going back to the way things were at the start of the scene, it meets the fundamental requirement of a scene.
Congratulations, it’s a brick. Now go make several dozen more of equal or greater quality and meet me back here. I’ll wait.
Now for the bad news: You can build a crappy wall even with high-quality bricks if you don’t put them together properly.
You have to plan ahead. You have to diagram how wide, how tall, how deep, what pattern you’re going to use, how you’re going to finish the edges, all the while keeping in mind you don’t have an infinite supply of bricks — you can toss a few or make a few more, but if you go crazy, you’re going to have to burn that diagram and start from scratch because your supplies don’t match your vision. You have to level the ground you want to build on. What’s the ground like, anyway? Maybe you need a footer. Are there gas or sewer lines you need to account for? And where’s your property line?
Once you’ve done all your preparation and assembled all your materials, it’s time to start laying your first course of bricks. Brick #1 goes down. “Wait! What are these depressions and protrusions on the side?” Those are the hallmark of a quality brick. They correspond with the protrusions and depressions on this side of Brick #2. They fit together like Brick #1 is growing into Brick #2 and Brick #2 is growing out of Brick #1. It’s practically seamless, and you don’t have to slop a bunch of mortar between them to glue them together because they’re linked as tightly as they can be.
Once you have a solid foundation, you’re ready to lay your second course of bricks. “Wait! Why does this brick have a hole going all the way through from top to bottom?” Oh, these are some really good bricks. If you slide a piece of rebar down through there, it will link this brick to Brick #1, in addition to the linear link to the next sequential brick. By the time you’re done constructing this wall, it will be nigh on indestructible from all the linkage.
“Wait! Why does this brick have an embossed face?” The embossing is decorative, but the brick itself is just as functional as the others. Strategically incorporate a few of those in the design to give it some dimension while it contributes to the overall strength of the structure.
In short (too late!), when properly written, every scene has a purpose internally, and every scene is integral to the structure of the story. Take out one scene, and the scenes before lead nowhere, the scenes after make no sense, and the whole story falls apart.
I’m sharing this with you now because we have reached a couple of scenes with distinctive embossing, otherwise known as SEX SCENES, which are at the turgid manroot of my falling out with an editor who felt she was not obligated to perform the job she was hired to do where that job involved smutnasty pornytimes. Rather than inform me of this feeling prior to accepting the assignment, she simply skipped Chapters 13, 14, 20, 27 (which doesn’t have any sex in it, but she thought it might), 33 (which doesn’t have any sex in it, but she thought it might), and 34 (which doesn’t have any sex in it, but she thought it might) as if they did not exist within the story… and then provided editorial feedback as if those six chapters did not exist within the story.
Page after page of “This doesn’t lead anywhere.” “This doesn’t make any sense.” “This came out of nowhere.” “What does this mean?”
I cried until I threw up. Not because I haven’t been ripped a new one by an editor before (I have), but because I thought my writing at least made sense, and now I’m being told it’s unintelligible gibberish. Not only am I not getting better as a writer, I’ve devolved to the point where I can’t even write readable garbage. A lemur smashing its butt against a keyboard for the equivalent of 90,000 words is smarter than I am because at least it doesn’t have delusions about its writing ability.
I called my other editor and told her to stop wherever she was, I knew it was shit, there was no point doing anything else to it other than killing it with fire, and she said, “What are you talking about?” I went down the list point by point, and point by point, she said, “That happened right after…” and “She thinks that because he said…” and “He wouldn’t have done that if she…” and so on. She had an answer for everything, and she didn’t even have to look at the manuscript. Even when she couldn’t recall where something fell in sequence, she knew it was in there somewhere.
Which was reassuring, but if 50% of the people who read it were going to be as confused as 50% of my editors, there was a BIG problem. So I went through the manuscript with a highlighter, trying to trace the origins of that problem. Every single smear of neon appeared in those six chapters. The editor who actually read the book asked, “Did she skip the sex scenes?” Well, yeah, but those other three, too. I couldn’t make sense of that pattern.
So I asked the one person who knew, and she explained, and she refused to perform the entire job she’d been paid to do or to refund 15% of the payment she had received to correspond with the 15% of the job she didn’t do, and she lectured me at length about going to hell for being a pornographer.
I don’t say much to people I like, much less people I’m in the mood to smite with my doomsday device, so I said farewell to her, spewed to a friend who knows to delete any ALL CAPS LOCK email from me without reading, and wrote it off as another “live, learn, descend a little further into the murky chasm of cynicism” lesson.
So… maybe the takeaway that would make this screed relevant for you, Blog Reader, is some cautionary tale about being ruthlessly persnickety in laying out your expectations when you enter a business arrangement because what you think is obvious means squadoo to someone with a different work ethic.
But mostly, I just have too much anger to contain in my short little body and have to periodically vent it to prevent spontaneous combustion. Sorry about that. At least you got minimal caps lock.
Stop hitting yourself
- In Chapter 10, Tally “lived in dread of debt of all kinds. Creditors came to collect at the damnedest times.” In Chapter 13, Ben “was in debt to her for eight months of mind-blowing orgasms already, and he had no intention of borrowing further.” The debt issue is no longer merely literal.
- She’d given him so few words of personal significance, he remembered every one of them. — This is sort of foreshadowing of echoing. If he remembers everything she says, expect him to repeat some of it.
- Ben likes to attribute fortress-like qualities to Tally, and she uses stony construction imagery to put words to escalating pleasure — and when it’s over, part of the fortress lies in ruins…
- Ben mentioned Tally’s cherry lip gloss in Chapter 1 and again in Chapter 13, and when she maligns his soda choice for tasting like cherry ChapStick in Chapter 14, his defense is: “It tastes like my first love’s lips.”
The first time I tasted Diet Dr. Pepper, I thought, “Only a sentimental sap whose first kiss was smeared with cherry ChapStick could enjoy this.”
The Diet Dr. Pepper addict of my acquaintance said, “That’s amazing! How did you know!”
Because he’s a sentimental sap and that’s what it tastes like — artificial fruit flavor and petroleum byproducts. With fizz!
Lil’ Sweet (the skeezy miniature glam rocker in the commercials) is an excellent anthropomorphization because he looks like he tastes like artificial fruit-flavored latex, which was my second guess (“Only a sentimental sap who’s had a novelty condom in his mouth could enjoy this”).
Omens, portents, and prophecies, oh my
- He couldn’t take too much of what she gave freely. — expect that naiveté to bite you in the ass (and not in a kinky way), you deluded fool
- that dead tree he’d carved some other girl’s initials into — expect an explanation of why Ben says “their initials” and Tally says “some other girl’s initials”
- Only after he let her do her part and distract him from his scrutiny of her was she able to loosen up — expect her to frequently be uncomfortable being the center of attention and to go to any lengths to get out of the spotlight
- Something inside her got all sloppy at the thought of stretching out with him all the way for a whole night — expect her to stretch out with him all the way for a whole night… sort of
- I know my way around the latch on my bedroom window — expect at least one misuse of a window as a door
- Ben has admitted he enabled Tally to be silent — now we know she valued that about him because it removed the burdensome parts of friendship that made it almost impossible for her with others.
- Ben thinks she lied to him with regularity — now we know Tally lied less often to him than to anyone else because he didn’t pry and force her to defend her secrets.
- Ben hasn’t been getting any action for a while — now his lack of preparedness for intercourse affects what kind they’re restricted to. (Yes, thank you, I’m well aware women are capable of carrying condoms, but Tally’s been decommissioned even longer than Ben and has even less optimism about sexual prospects, so why would she?)
- Ben used the tutoring he received from Tally in high school as a demonstration of them being a good team — now their lovemaking is being couched in instructional terms, and they’re working together well once again.
- Back in Chapter 4, Tally alluded to a disillusioning sexual history — now she thinks it’s novel to not be treated like a “collection of generic female body parts” or “whatever random female happened to be available,” doesn’t seem to have enough experience with orgasms to know if she’s always this agreeable after one, and would have viewed inability to achieve one as a “failure” on her part and inability to give Ben one a “debt.” (Baggage, much?)
Ordinarily, the foreshadowing and sprouting sections would come at the end of the post, but pursuant to the “every scene matters” sermon to which I subjected you earlier, I thought it was important to show how much stuff is in these chapters that has nothing to do with penises and vaginas before I said anything about penises and vaginas.
Sex scenes in rough drafts are always mostly tab-in-slot because until you know the whole story, you don’t know the characters well enough to know why the sex matters and get to the emotional part of it. Mostly what you have to work with in the beginning is the mechanical part. With the exception of the dreaded Chapter 11, the sex scenes in WCAD underwent the most revision because they not only have to perform the same duties as every other scene, they have to evolve into emotional conflict from a starting point similar to explaining the operation of human genitalia to an alien.
I assume you’re human, as such possess at least a basic understanding of the operation of human genitalia, and as such don’t need a tutorial from me on the mechanics thereof. I also assume if you wanted a book to beat off to, you would have chosen one of the innumerable options with boinking on the first page rather than slogging through 22,801 words of this one to get to the first kiss. I assume, therefore, that you read sex scenes for the same reasons you read other scenes: fascination with thought and emotion and where they lead.
The reader has to be able to visualize characters doing something in relative space, so stage direction is necessary — but the reader doesn’t have to visualize every blink and bend and finger flick any more than she has to visualize the precise shade of a character’s hair and eyes. The physical is only relevant if there’s thought or emotion attached to it.
Sexually, generally speaking, men are relatively simple in comparison to women. If you’ve never wanted to shove one through an interdimensional hell portal for saying “For men, even sex that makes you hate yourself in the morning is pretty good,” you have a much sweeter nature than I (which is a given, honestly — you probably don’t even have a doomsday device). Since pretty much any sexual encounter for a guy is going to be “my penis got touched, so it’s all good,” there’s no point investing a lot of words telling the reader a guy’s penis got touched, so it was all good, as if that couldn’t be inferred.
So what’s left to invest words in from the man’s point of view? What he’s thinking about her and doing for her — not because “oh, silly women and their fantasy wish-fulfillment stories” but because there’s only so much that can be written about “peen feel good” when the intent isn’t use as a masturbatory aid.
In WCAD, this isn’t a hookup with a woman Ben met for the first time an hour ago — this is the girl he never got over. He has feelings and cares about hers, which makes it a lot easier to redirect attention from tabs and slots.
Sexually, generally speaking (and please just take the “generally speaking” for granted hereafter so I don’t have to get all apologist for not accounting for every individual case), women are relatively complex in comparison to men. We don’t have one body part that delivers an “it’s all good” experience 99% of the time. The parts we do have are kind of finicky about how they’re handled. We have a reputation for being more emotionally invested in sex.
I have this theory that there’s a tremendous emotional divide between being the penetrator and being the penetrated. I had this half-formed idea for a while, which solidified after talking to a guy who said he was always up for sex, but he would never kiss a woman he didn’t want as a steady thing because “kissing is too intimate.” In other words, a woman penetrating his mouth with her tongue is too intimate for him, but he perceives no intimacy in penetrating any of her orifices with his penis. Invading is fine, but being invaded threatens his security — unless he also trusts her enough to have her as a steady fixture in his life (“I trust you not to poison my food, so I suppose you’re safe to kiss”).
Women, who are inherently in the position of being invaded, perceive sex as a major intimacy — which isn’t to say a lifelong commitment is expected every time the legs open, but we need, at the very least, that warm feeling of security that comes from believing we’re not going to be murdered in the immediate future. We like to build trust through smaller intimacies (holding hands, cuddling, petting, kissing) before we let the snake into the garden.
A panel of men surveyed during Stanley Cup finals (between periods — I’m not a nihilist) agreed there’s a correlation between penetration and intimacy but unanimously expressed long-held understanding that women are in the more vulnerable position sexually and said they’re perfectly happy to go through all those smaller intimacies, not just because they’re mandatory for a penis to gain entrance to a vagina but because men also enjoy kissing. (Apparently, men have nerve endings and feelings and all that good shit, too. Who knew?) Furthermore, it was the consensus that Cantkiss Everpeen was either a virgin or a rapist or had only ever had sex with prostitutes because very few women (none, in their collective experience) go from zero to “put your dick in me” without some kind of buildup.
In addition to the inherent woman-sex issues, Tally has abuse issues, body issues, history-of-unsatisfactory-sex issues, crying-her-eyes-out-in-the-recent-past issues, and old-flame issues complicating this experience for her. Her head is full of things getting in the way of her enjoying the physical aspect. I could have written pages devoted solely to her anxiety, never mind the tabs and slots.
But the “reality” of anxiety is still unbearable to read, and it’s only fair that if most of Ben’s content focused on her, at least some of her content should focus on him. The difference between them, even more than the male/female disparity, is that he’s all about this moment in time and space, and she’s very much trapped in her head. All this mental garbage is as present in the moment for her as Ben is, and because it’s far more of a threat to her well-being than he is, it’s demanding more of her attention than he is. Because she’s not really attuned to him, the things she’s doing are mechanical, scripted, things she knows “men” like.
But she also likes what he’s doing to her — not just the touching, but the way he’s treating her in general, starting with “I don’t want to be one more thing you regret in the morning.” He talks to her, he uses her name, he pays attention to her responses and reacts accordingly, and otherwise treats her like a person rather than just grabbing at her tits and humping her like “men” do. The combination of the treatment and the touching (good-hands team, indeed), manages to break through the mental garbage long enough for her to enjoy a few seconds of feeling good.
That battle was hard fought. Hell yeah, she gets to devote some words to her slot before all her worries collect themselves and swarm back to torment her — which they will because although she achieved her stated goal of feeling good for a little while, she resolved exactly none of her problems and created a new one for herself because neither she nor Ben will be able to stick to those avoidance plans after this.
Well, I’m spent. Was it good for you? I imagine your eyes are crossed and possibly bleeding after all that, but if you can find the comment form, you’re welcome to use it. Otherwise, on to Chapter 15.