Showing posts with label Twist Phelan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Twist Phelan. Show all posts

10 June 2015

Heavy Breathing


David Edgerley Gates

Warning: NSFW

About a third of the way into writing VIPER, my Cold War novella - which is about the antiwar movement in Berlin in the 1970's, a KGB deception, and a love affair, among other things - I realized I had to do a SEX SCENE. I'd boxed myself in, there was no way around it. It couldn't happen off-stage, you had to see these people doing the horizontal mambo. Otherwise, the story wouldn't make any sense.

Now, let's face it, this can be a deeply embarrassing prospect. How many writers do you know who've done it convincingly? With the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, my own feeling is that women are better at erotic material than men. Harold Robbins? Gimme a break. Or maybe Norman Mailer, THE TIME OF HER TIME? You might as well just call a plumber, since it's all about leaky pipes.

Twist Phelan has what amounts almost to a comedy routine, talking about writing sex. She says, you avoid at all costs an overwrought euphemism, 'the scepter of love,' for instance. On the other hand, you should steer clear of clinical description - you don't actually have to use the word 'cock.' If you manhandle, so to speak, a turn of phrase like, 'she took me in her lips,' the astute reader can probably imagine she's not hanging onto a subway strap. Less, at least in this situation, is probably more.

I like the way Deb Coonts deals this particular card, and she deals it from the bottom of the deck. Near the end of LUCKY CATCH, there's a really hot scene. First of all, she sneaks it up on you. You're not ready for it at all. You're going, like whoa! Secondly, she doesn't cheat your expectations. She goes all the way. And last but not least, she defuses it afterwards with a laugh line. Who'd expect you could make sex funny? Then again, why is it always taken so seriously, or in books, anyway? C'mon. We're supposed to be enjoying it.

Craig Johnson tells a story. Somewhere around the third Longmire book, he puts two major characters in bed together. Of course, this has consequences, but the point is that Craig gets them in and out of the sack in maybe three sentences. ("Which shows you how much of a pussy I am," he says.) Down the road, he's at a reading, and he's taking questions, and a woman raises her hand, and says, we need to talk about that sex scene. Craig says okay. She says, it went on forever

Craig gives this a long beat, and then he asks her, well, how many times did you read it?

Which brings us back to VIPER. The novella is 17K words. The sex scene takes up two pages, so I lapped Craig. Then again, those two pages took me something like three or four days to write. I was sweating bullets. It was as though I'd set myself a hurdle. Writers do this, of course. You sometimes trick yourself, and set something up, and then you have to do it. (For example, the dive sequence in "Cover of Darkness." That's basically the whole story, and because you're underwater, there's no dialogue. It's all physical action, it's nothing but description. Try it some time - you'd be surprised how hard it is.) Anyway, by the time I got done, I was completely exhausted. I'd been having sex for four days. But the end result works. It's not a complete embarrassment. How many times did I read it aloud to myself? It seemed to go on forever

Here's the thing, though. The real point of the scene is that these two people are invested in each other. If it doesn't have emotional resonance, it's just plumbing. And that was the tricky part. The grappling, the earthiness, showing skin, all of that is to no purpose, if you're just waving it around in a warm room. The money shot was making their physical hunger count for something. Martina tells herself afterward, I surrendered, this was rescue. And if I haven't convinced you of that, it's a dry hump.

What it comes down to is purpose. Why do you need it in the story? Anybody in their right mind would turn and run. Unless you're into whips and chains. Let's be honest. Doing it is terrific. It's consuming, It lights you on fire. But trying to convey that sensation is like pushing water uphill with a rake. In this case, it was utterly necessary. Do you have to ask, would I do it again? Bring on the whips and chains. I'm putty in your hands.



16 July 2014

New choice!


by Robert Lopresti

I am writing this a few days after the Arthur Ellis Awards were announced by the Crime Writers of Canada.  Of course,  I am delighted that our latest blogger, Melodie Campbell,  won the award for best novella for "The Goddaughter's Revenge."  Such is the incredible power of the SleuthSayers brand that she started winning awards even before it was announced that she had signed up!

(By the way the award is named after Arthur Ellis, which was the nom de corde of several of Canada's official hangmen.  Fun fact!)

But  the truth is that today's piece was inspired by another of this year's winners: Twist Phelan's "Footprints in water," the champ in the short story category.  I wrote about it last year and it found a place on my best-of list as well.  It tells the tale of an African-born police detective in New York City who is called to a case involving a Congolese family.  But he is there as a translator, while the detective in charge of the case is newly-promoted, a person he has supervised in the past.

And here is my point: the cliche - and you've read it a dozen times, and probably seen it a hundred because TV loves cliches - would be for the two cops to butt heads, fighting for control of the case.  Instead Phelan turns it around: the new cop wants the senior detective's help and he politely but firmly insists that she run the show instead.  That unexpected source of conflict is one of the things that makes the story work so well and, naturally, it made me think of improv comedy.

Perhaps you don't spot the connection.  Let me explain.

My little city has been a hotbed for improv since the great comic Ryan Stiles moved here in 2004.  To indulge his passion he created the Upfront Theatre where improv is taught and performed.  And one of the games they play there is called "New Choice."  It starts with--  Wait.  Why should I try to explain it when you can see a demonstration by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochry.  If it isn't working directly below you can find it http://tinyurl.com/oty5qsp


The point is, when I am writing (or more likely, rewriting) and I find myself face-to-screen with a cliche, I yell (internally, usually) "New choice!" and try to find a different way around the plot point.  Often, it is an improvement.

Another favorite example is from the movie Alien Nation, which takes place a few years after a huge saucer full of aliens ("the Newcomers") has landed, and they are trying to find a place in society.  Unfortunately some find their way into a life of crime and as the movie opens some of them kill a cop.

The dead detective's partner naturally wants nothing to do with Newcomers but one of them has just been promoted to detective and the bosses force our hero to work with  -- 

New choice!  The cliche would be our hero being forced to partner with the new guy (and in fact, that is exactly how they did it in the generally-better-than-that TV series), but in the movie our hero  astonishes and infuriates his peers by volunteering to work with the Newcomer.  Why?  Because he figures it improves his chances of catching the killers.  Logical, right?

A related thought:  Have you ever head of the Bechdel Test?   Alison Bechdel is a very talented cartoonist.  One of her characters once explained that she will only watch a movie if 1) there are at least two women it, and 2) there is at least one scene in which they talk together 3) about something other than a  man.

Doesn't sound like a  very high standard, but  there are tons of movies that don't reach it.  There is a website that rates more than 5000 movies as to whether they pass the Test.

And before we get distracted let me say I don't think anyone should be forced to put gratuitous women into a movie, a book, or for that matter, a comic strip. (I don't think Bechdel means that either.)  But the Test does give you a chance to look for stereotypes, which are just another kind of cliche, after all.

When I was editing my new novel I realized it didn't pass the Bechdel Test.  After a little thought I changed the sound technician in one scene from Stu to Serona.  Didn't hurt a bit (well, didn't hurt me.  I don't know how Stu/Serona felt about the operation.) 

And you know what?  It improved the scene.

Which is the point of it, after all.