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November 14, 2006

Know It When I Read It

By Sarah

ScottolineLast weekend I was on a panel with Lisa Scottoline at Crime Bake to talk about dialogue. Lisa was great, natch. She had tons to say about attribution and structure and flushing out personality through dialogue whereas I was a dud because, as usual, my mind was on sex. Again, natch.

It was only later, while washing the dishes in my own kitchen and thinking about what I could have said better, when I realized the similarities between dialogue and sex. Both are natural activities that are easier done than described. In other words, you know them when you hear them or see them (or, in some uncomfortable situations, both) - as the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart noted in his landmark ruling on pornography.

But that doesn't help when you've got a scene where two characters, having been patient and stalwart in their maturity, reach the point where mature restraint gives way to passion. As anyone who's been to one of my readings knows, this was a big issue with Bubbles and Stiletto. They were ready to go at it. Yet after four or so books, I couldn't very well close the door at the Big Moment. I mean, we'd come with these two this far. We had to know what happened next. We wanted details.

Which brings me to the most humiliating point of my career, ever. Having fretted and worried about my Bubbles and Stiletto sex scene, I finally broke down and bought a book: THE JOY OF WRITING SEX. I can't tell you how helpful it was. It taught me all sorts of things, like how there should be other issues circulating in the air when your two characters finally get down and do the dirty deed, how there had to be tension and hesitation and sacrifice and...did I mention tension? I wrote the scene. I was really pleased. So pleased, I jumped Charlie until he couldn't breathe. That's how good that scene was. I was hot. I was on fire.

Turn in the manuscript. Editor approves. Editor in chief approves. Then comes the call from the publisher, the same woman who built Sue Grafton. The big cahoona. Carole Baron compliments me on the manuscript and then asks about this word in my tenuous sex scene, the word "dick." Did I really need to use a word like "dick"? And, if so, out of all the choices in the world, why "dick"?

The way she said "dick"  had me sweating bullets. I knew that if I'd said that, yes, dick was a perfectly fine word and what was her problem, anyway, on the dick front, that I'd be on shaky turf. This woman was experienced. She was well aware of the merits, say, of "erect penis" versus "throbbing member." Whereas I hadn't even read all of THE JOY OF WRITING SEX. Maybe there'd been a whole chapter on dick euphemisms and I'd skipped it.

"There's a saying in publishing," Carole went on to say. "If you don't need it, delete it."

I deleted it. Still, I wondered. I wonder, still. What was so wrong with dick?

Which goes to show how hard - not to pun - sex scenes are to write. Mostly because writing sex (or love scenes) is so very unnatural. For example, there are many moments in my life where I live a narrative, where I'm talking to someone and saying in my head, "I can't believe I'm having this conversation. This person is so rude. I would rather be in a celery tasting contest than listening to her go on and on about the looseness of buttons in modern wardrobes."

This is not true for sex. I don't know about you, but I do not keep a running narrative in my head when I'm indulging in the act that, as a married person, I am permitted and encouraged to do so by law and my religion.

Ditto for the dialogue thing. I'm not thinking "she said" and "he said" and "I exclaimed." It would be as unnatural for me to think, "And then I noted," during a common conversation, as it would be for me to think "and then his firm, hard thighs wedged my silky white legs..." during...Well, you get the idea.

Nine books later, I'm writing THE SLEEPING BEAUTY PROPOSAL and am back to struggling with a sex sSleeping_beauty_covercene. I am wrestling with making sure it develops the characters, leads to tension and, therefore, growth. Or maybe I should just cut it.

I won't, though, because sex, like dialogue, is part of life. Some of my readers don't think so. I had one woman write me to complain about a character in THE SECRET LIVES OF FORTUNATE WIVES who overdoses on Viagra while cheating on his wife. "I don't know why you had to stoop so low," the reader wrote me. "But that scene was trash and I will never read another one of your books again." Later, I went on the Literary Guild website and found readers complaining there wasn't enough sex, thinking the book smacked of Jacqueline Susann and that, therefore, I was obligated to deliver.

The again, I recently received a letter from woman complaining about my "NASCAR potty mouth" in Chapter Four of BUBBLES ALL THE WAY. She warned me that if I keep this up much longer, she won't finish the book.

The thing is, I have no idea what a NASCAR potty mouth is. All I can think is, maybe it's that troublesome word again, "dick." Or is it dip stick? Because when it comes to filth, my dip stick is pretty darn raunchy.

Checking Chapter Four now -

Sarah

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Comments

A most fine post, m'am. Regarding dick: I think the term is best used when applied to a person's character ("Rumsfield is such a dick") rather than the appendage itself ("Rumsfield was compensating for having such a tiny dick.") But hey, that's just me...

I love Lisa Scottoline, and she loves to talk about anything. I'd love to know if she would have had as much to say about writing sex scenes as writing dialogue. Maybe you would have been the one doing all the talking! She's fond of saying when she had to write one for a recent book, she had to do it from dim memory.

Maybe "The Joy Of Writing Sex" should be the next book club read.

I loved the Bubbles/Stiletto sex scene - don't think I would have felt differently if the word "dick" had been used, but then I'm not usually wordsmithing when reading sex scenes. Good thing that's the editor's job. And hey, lucky Charlie. He probably looks forward to the sex scenes in your books, long before we do.

And I thought the NASCAR line was funny.

How I love that new book cover!

Bob: True, all of it.

NASCAR Potty Mouth? All I can think about is that dinner table scene from Taladega Nights, where Ricky Bobby and family debate how to say grace. Hilarious.

I love reading sex scenes - so keep it up.heh. But I'm totally confused about the dick objection. Would she have preferred c*&k? Because even the mighty editors at Harelquin are using that one now. How about lance? That one always cracks me up.

I knew I forgot something! Yes, LOVE the cover.

No. She didn't like "c&ck" either. Believe me, we discussed them all. This is what I mean by it being the most humiliating point in my career. Here was this top shelf editor whom I finally get to have a personal conversation with and - bam - we end up debating the merits of various four-letter words.

I sent her a cheese plate from Harry and David afterward.

Bob: You are too funny. Hey, do you think the word "Rumsfield" will become synonymous for "tiny dick"? Let's craft the sample sentence:

"I was looking for a good time that night. But when he stepped out of his jeans, I noticed ha had a Rumsfield and that was when I decided to cut the evening short."

Thanks, Laura!

A RUMSFELD? Hot tea on the computer screen moment here!!

As a veteran of writing sex scenes (2 per romance novel, and I wrote---well, I forget exactly how many but it's more than 40) I must say I would never use "dick." It's just a word that conjures up jokes for me. I might use the word "cock" in dialogue because one of my characters might say it, but I would not, so it can't appear in narrative.

Then again, I think we've come up with a word for Wikipedia here. "When he unzipped and revealed his Rumsfeld, she burst out laughing."

You know Dan Savage did the honor for Santorum, why can't you do the same for Rumsfeld? I always crack up when I read about his "his velvet tip", tee hee, I'm laughing again.

You know, I'm thinking maybe the word in dispute with Carole Baron wasn't "dick," but "cock." Yes, that was it, cock. So sorry. I get easily confused being that they all, uhm, look alike.

And "his velvet tip" - yes, that's definitely a winner...I wonder if waiters long for velvet tips? Or if in JoAnn Fabrics sewers fret over how to craft a velvet tip...

Also sorry about misspelling Rumsfeld. I think I get him mixed up with Renfield sometimes....That darn subconscious...

OK, who called to tell me it was Dick Day and then hung up?

Naturally, I was up like a rocket, but it's not really a national holiday or anything. So I'm up already anyhow, so here I am.

Sarah - skip the fabrics store and see me later.

Outside of my own house, I go with Johnson or Schwanstik (remember Terri Garr in Young Frankenstein?). I think something that important deserves two syllables.

But here's my real question - how did the name Dick get the call? How about Dilbert? Or Peter - oh yeah. What about Gene or Pat?

It's like George Carlin says- Out of all the numbers, why does 2 gotta mean shit?

OK, I'm going back to sleep. Don't call me and I'll be in late; after that wake up call, I had to page Steve.

I see it as putting yourself into the character's place--isn't that what it's about? What word might Bubbles have used in that situation? Is she shy about words like that? I'm not sure that the "d" word or the "c-word" (no, not that one--well, maybe that one, too) would come to mind, but it isn't my mind that it would come to; it's yours, since Bubbles is your creation and only you can say what she would think. I doubt she would have used the terms "Willy the One-eyed Wonder Worm" or "Mr. Olympia Organ." That last one is one of my favorites.

Long timers on Sarah's Yahoo group might recall that I objected to Bubbles and Stilleto going all the way. Sort of a purity thing, compartmentalizing humorous mystery-romance, versus porn.

And, I admit that this is nit-picky, but it wasn't pornography that Potter Stewart was referring to; it was obscenity. I quoted it in an opinion that I drafted for my judge when I was a law clerk.

Oh, I meant Joe Rumsfield, not Donald Rumsfeld. Far be it from me to poke fun at guys with tiny rummies...

Here's a thing about writing sex: The writer is both characters. Which puts an interesting spin on the post-writing, Charlie-jumping phenomenon Sarah described.

Who called Margie this early?

I once worked for a guy named Dick Kidney. He used to say he was named after two organs. No wonder he was a drinker...

Great blog, Sarah, about a really important topic.

I love to write sex scenes, and I don't have any difficulty writing them, but I confess to being very conscious of what readers will think about my characters based on the sex scenes. When it comes to my protagonist, who's a young mom and a professional woman, I want her sex life to be hot, but at the same time clean. She's a nice girl. She likes sex but she doesn't sleep around, and while I'll often put some kinkier stuff in my books -- bondage, threesomes, sex tapes, whatever -- I always give it to the bad characters rather than to the heroine. I thought Anne Stuart's guest blog was really interesting on this topic, how she took flak for having a bi-sexual male lead. I do think readers draw conclusions about characters' morality based on their sexuality.

So I had this big question in my mind with my third book, Cover-Up, which comes out in March. I was writing this scene where Melanie and Dan have sex in her office at a really critical moment both in their relationship and in the very dangerous murder investigation they're working on. When I wrote the scene I found that, in the heat of passion, Melanie said to Dan, "Fuck me." You know how these things go. When you're really into writing the scene, the characters say and do what they want, and you have surprisingly little control. After that line got on the page, however, it was up to me to decide whether to keep it there. I agonized. I took it out. I put it in. Over and over and over again. (No punning intended). Finally, I left it in. We'll see what kind of reaction it gets from readers.

OK, back to topic Michele: What about Dan's Rumsfeld?

Bob, what about my old fashioned recipe? A girl needs a little fual if she's going to talk about stuff like that.

Oops, fuel.

Clarification, just in case, not Rumsfeld's velvet tip. That could be the stuff of nightmares and intensive therapy.

Also, please pass on the old fashioned and the oyster dressing recipes.

Call me old fashioned, but I really prefer not to mix dick talk and oyster dressing recipes in the same venue.

But I am digging the recipes out of the closet (actually, I know the Old Fashioned recipe by heart) and I will email to all who ask. Michele, Sarah, Kathy, Cheryl...anyone else just lemme know.

I prefer c*ck to d*ck--boy that didn't sound right. And I guess it goes to show, you can't please all the readers all the time *sigh*

Well, you know, to each her own. That's what makes us such a varied and interesting culture.

Nancy, I definitely did not call up Margie. I think she's just on permanent High Dick Alert...which is, of course, the obvious color.

Okay - ENOUGH! Slapping my hand now. Back to work...

Sarah, I have to second what Laura said about Lisa. Lisa has said that she writes what she knows, and that when she wrote a sex scene that she had to try to remember as it had been so long. LOL!! Lisa is another lover of the brownies (which didn't get made yet).

As for sex scenes, I like what you wrote in Bubbles. I think that it was just right, not too exteme or over the top. I seem to be one of those people who giggles over some of the terminology that is used to describe certain body parts.

As for BATW, LOVED IT!!! Your style of writing is something that I enjoy, and I always look forward to each new book.

Debby

I like dick. It's casual, yet goes with anything. Cock, on the other hand, says to me, "watch out! Possible pornography ahead." Which is fine, but not something you want to say in front of the mother-in-law. (especially if she's cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.)

I heard a whole essay on NPR the other day on the distinction between putz and shmuck. Who knew?

A putz is a Moravian nativity display. Everyone knows that..

Wait! Wait! I need to know this for the next book: where IS moravia, anyway? Is anyone out there Moravian?

I like "towering tumescence" myself.

Looky what I just found on Wikipedia:

putz : an idiot, a jerk; a penis (from Yiddish פּאָץ pots)

Actually very pertinent to today's blog! You can always count on Yiddish to call a spade a spade.

Can you tell I'm bored today?

I've got a putz putz joke in BUBBLES ALL THE WAY....Putz Moravian style...Well, you can read all about it on my website.

Anything but "member." Does anyone really call it that? It doesn't belong to the country club, does it? Dick is at least far more inclusive.

Count me as surprised that a shiksa like Harley would not know the difference between a putz and a schmuck. A putz is an idiot; a moron; see, George W. Bush; cf., George Clooney. A schmuck is an a-hole; a jerk; see, Richard Cheney; cf., Jimmy Carter.

What a great day at TLC - a great week really.

If I'm in mixed company, I sometimes use 'member' when I'm telling the elephant and the Mercedes joke. Given the choice, though, dick is just a funny word. Cock is too raw, and penis is too anatomical. Weiner is funny, but juvenile. Dick is just right.

Our pediatrician's name was Frank Weiner. Now why would you do that to a kid?

We have two pediatricians in town: Dr. Paine and Dr. Hirt. I kid you not.

But Frank Weiner. That takes the cake!

And, yes, dick is great. Though around here we like John Thomas. It sounds so dignified.

By the way, do you guys know the Monty Python ripoff of the Noel Coward song? Runs through all the euphemisms...

*snort* Harley!

BTW Sarah I love the Sleeping Beauty Cover!

Cannot believe we forgot Dong.

As in Long Dong Silver, whose name came up in the Clarence Thomas hearings. There's a question for dirty Jeopardy.

My favourite is knob. But I tend to use that when describing someone as a "knob head" rather than "she felt his pulsating knob between her silky thighs". Great post Susan, I'm visualising your conversation with the publisher searching for a euphemism to go something along the lines of Austin Powers

[Noticing Dr. Evil's spaceship on radar]
Radar Operator: Colonel, you better have a look at this radar.
Colonel: What is it, son?
Radar Operator: I don't know, sir, but it looks like a giant...
Jet Pilot: Dick. Dick, take a look out of starboard.
Co-Pilot: Oh my God, it looks like a huge...
Bird-Watching Woman: Pecker.
Bird-Watching Man: [raising binoculars] Ooh, Where?
Bird-Watching Woman: Over there. What sort of bird is that? Wait, it's not a woodpecker, it looks like someone's...
Army Sergeant: Privates. We have reports of an unidentified flying object. It has a long, smooth shaft, complete with...
Baseball Umpire: Two balls.
[looking up from game]
Baseball Umpire: What is that. It looks just like an enormous...
Chinese Teacher: Wang. pay attention.
Wang: I was distracted by that giant flying...
Musician: Willie.
Willie: Yeah?
Musician: What's that?
Willie: [squints] Well, that looks like a huge...
Colonel: Johnson.
Radar Operator: Yes, sir?
Colonel: Get on the horn to British Intelligence and let them know about this.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Basil: Did we get Dr. Evil?
Radar Operator: No, sir, he got away in that big spaceship that looks like a huge...
Teacher: Penis. The male reproductive organ. Also known as tallywhacker, schlong, or...
Friendly Dad: Wiener? Any of your kids want another wiener?
Friendly Son: Dad, what's that?
Friendly Dad: I don't know, son, but it has great big...
Peanut Vendor: Nuts. Hot, salty nuts. Who wants some?...
Peanut Vendor: Lord Almighty!
Woman: That looks just like my husband's...
Circus Barker: ONE-EYED MONSTER. Step right up and see the One-eyed Monster!
Cyclops: RARRR.
Cyclops: Hey, what's that? It looks like a...
Fan: Woody. Woody Harrelson. Could I have your autograph?
Woody: Sure. Oh, my Lord! Look at that thing!
Fan: It's so huge.
Woody: No, I've seen bigger. That's...
Dr. Evil: Just a little prick.

I've copied down some of the recipes for Thanksgiving. Will be using some of them at Christmas time.
Alison

Gee...see what happens when I miss a day...

A mystery author once said, when it comes to sex scenes, write like your mother is dead.

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