Funky Friday Writing Advice: Take What Someone Else Did and Make It Your Own

OK, now that you’re good and worn out from chair dancing, let’s talk about the Grammy Awards, where last Sunday, despite a truckload of radio play, Robin Thicke failed to get an award for his super-mega hit “Blurred Lines,” and instead laid the foundation for a future as a Las Vegas lounge act backed by the guys from Chicago (I’ll get to why I started you off with “Tighten Up” in a moment). Continue reading → Funky Friday Writing Advice: Take What Someone Else Did and Make It Your Own

A Barbecue-Basted Lesson in Creating Honest Characters

Bessinger's BBQ SauceWhat you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.

Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.

First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.

The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …

… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.

Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”

And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.

But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.

Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.

Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.

And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.

The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.

And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.

Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?

I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!

I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.

This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?

The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.

But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.

Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.

So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.

Radio, Radio

Once upon a time, I aspired to be a broadcast, rather than print, journalist. It was during those early, heady days at the University of South Carolina that I realized as much as I loved being on the air, I loved writing better.

And honestly, I was probably better at the writing anyway.

For the last 20 years or so, my full time job has been writing or writing related, but I’ve still relished every chance I’ve had to appear on the radio, usually promoting something.

Last night I had the chance to join Carlette Norwood Ritter on her podcast Lette’s Chat. The show was co-hosted by my good friend and fellow Codorus Press team member Tom Joyce, and we had a great time talking about Immaculate Deception, the process of writing, combining sci-fi with erotica and satire and what’s up with those scuppernong grapes, anyway?

We were also joined by a special guest caller, so listen in and see how much fun we had. You can link directly to the podcast here.


Is it Hot in Here?

Full confession: I never set out to be a writer of erotica, but I’m seriously starting to consider it, if only to tap (heh) the obviously fertile (heh, heh) “horny housewife with an e-reader” market.

I already had a vague notion that this market existed when I started researching e-books in preparation for Immaculate Deception to enter the market in its Kindle version. What I found was a little startling. It seemed like every second title among the Top 100 Kindle books was some form of erotica aimed squarely at women. And not prissy little Harlequin Romance works, either. These tales  were hard-core in the traditional (meaning porno) sense.

If you see your wife or girlfriend reading this, rest assured it is not a book about fashion.

Lately, one cover I’ve repeatedly seen popping up in 50 Shades of Grey. The frequency of its appearance should have tipped me off to something, but it wasn’t until I read this story in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday that I realized what a phenomenon this book has become.

Headlined “Steaming up moms’ e-readers,” the story details the wave of readership for this naughty novel that details the relationship between a young woman and a significantly older man who’s into all sorts of rough play, known among the folks who haunt leather gear and sex toy shops by the acronym BDSM – that’s bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism to you poor, missionary-position, vanilla, whitebread folks out there who don’t think wrapping your mouth around a rubber ball gag in someone’s suburban basement “dungeon” is a great way to spend an evening.

The story got me thinking about eroticism in my own work, where it comes from and how people have responded to it.

Boris Vallejo is perhaps second only to Hugh Hefner in causing American moms to spend countless hours banging on bathroom doors asking, "Honey, are you OK in there?"

As I said, I never intended to write erotica per se, but I came to a realization a long time ago after reading Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett when I was a teenager. It’s about a Nazi spy who figures out what the Allies are up to with D-Day, but ends up trapped on an isolated island with a lonely Englishwoman who does her duty for king and country in a particularly hot scene that to this day still resonates with me.

That realization was this: The best books are made even better by a little booty.

When I sat down to write Immaculate Deception around 1989, my experiences with things carnal weren’t terribly in-depth. As a young lad, I got away with bringing nekkid pictures into the house thanks to two gentlemen, Msrs. Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta, both masters of the fantasy illustrating genre whose pictures of semi-nude and nude warrior women grace many an Edgar Rice Borroughs and Conan novel cover.

As the idea for the Church of the New Revelation developed, I realized that because it was a sex-and-drugs-based church, there would probably end up being some sexy-sexy in the novel itself.

That realization was solidified as the character of Veronica Whitaker shaped up. There was no way a woman of such surpassing hotness and carnal motivation could be represented in my novel without actually displaying how that shaped her behavior, particularly toward her husband, Lawrence, and the main character, Jon Templeton.

"I have talents you're not even remotely aware of."

So, what has resulted can be easily wrapped up like this: Chapters 28, 29 and 38, wherein Veronica reveals the true depth of her … um, passion in a variety of ways. Suffice it to say that if sexually abusing viticulture was a punishable offense, she would be in jail for a long, long time.

The reaction to these steamy scenes has been particularly puzzling. For instance, before reading the novel, my mom repeatedly told me that my next book needed to be sexy. I assured her that she should read this one before assuming it didn’t fit into that category. From her I have heard not a peep of admonition. However, from her sister, who holds a place in our family as the progressive, open-minded 1960s rabble-rouser, politely suggested that the scenes verged on the pornographic. So apparently I was indeed writing erotica all this time and didn’t even realize it.

What’s particularly amusing is reviews that warn readers of things like the “overwhelming amount of NC-17 content” in the novel. Really? Overwhelming? If the entire book was based on sheer sexual activity and character motivation and development (like, for example … um … 50 Shades of Grey), I could understand. However, the above chapters are really the only that contain any measurable explicit behavior. So why don’t reviews for any other books that have a few naughty bits carry big, scary warnings? Beats me.

I do, however, know that plenty of other people enjoyed those parts (just how much, I suppose we’ll never know, other than by the soft moans we hear from their rooms as they re-read those dog-eared pages). And that’s really what they’re there for. In working in literature as a medium, my end goal is always to provide entertainment. If it’s entertainment that informs, is thought-provoking or titillating, so much the better (especially if it’s all at once).






Assisted Development

Anyone who’s written anything of considerable length –  whether it’s a novel or a report for a class in college – knows that it’s a solitary pursuit. In fact, if you ask most writers what they like least about their craft, it will likely be the hours and hours they must spend by themselves to get the job done.

It’s this part that pro writers like to clarify for writing “civilians” when talk turns to the “glamor” of being a writer.

Really, sitting in a room (or coffee shop or cabin in the mountains or oceanside cottage) all alone, typing made up stuff into a computer is, at its core, actually pretty damn pathetic. Really, who would choose to do this? Especially when there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will ever pay off in any sort of fame or financial success, it seems like the work of a person with genuine social issues. After all, didn’t the Unabomber live like this?

But if we’re lucky, we writers aren’t completely alone in the process. Regardless of whether you’re a beginning writer or someone who has been successful at it for years, it’s important to have someone you can turn to whose opinion you respect to give you honest, non-judgmental feedback on your projects.

For some, this comes with a critique group, which is frequently a group of fellow writers who regularly gather to pass around their work and get opinions from others. It’s a fine idea and pitched as a perfect way for writers to workshop works in progress to see if they’re headed in the wrong direction or if there are massive holes that need to be filled.

I have to be honest – I’ve never been a part of a critique group per se, and I’ll tell you why: Sometimes there are folks who just don’t get it. You know the type (and, come to think of it, maybe you are the type). They seem to be fans of every genre but the one you’re writing in. Or, they ask questions about your piece that aren’t immediately relevant to the criticism you seek. Or, they’re jealous and will take every opportunity to tell you that you suck. The worst critique groups are filled with these types of people.

The best, though, have none of them and are full of open-minded, thoughtful individuals genuinely who appreciate the genre you write in and are focused on trying to help you make your story a hundred times better. And I’m sure there have been many fantasy stories written about the fabulous mythical land in which these groups exist.

If the critique group thing isn’t for you, consider what I’ve found to be an immense amount of help – my very own bar stool development editor. We’re lucky at Codorus Press to have possibly the greatest example of this “writing advisor” in the form of Tom Joyce. Tom worked alongside me, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and Codorus author Mike Argento during our time together at the York Daily Record, and early on displayed an uncanny ability to home in on what makes a story good. (Read Tom’s blog, Chamber of the Bizarre, for more of his insights).

Part of what makes him so valuable to the Codorus team is that he’s an excellent storyteller himself (you’ll get to find out just how excellent when Codorus comes out with his novel The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report in late 2012/early 2013). His skills come from both his history as a voracious reader and a dedicated reporter and copy editor.

We in Codorus Press are also fortunate that we come from the newspaper business, where honest and forthright criticism is something you learn to accept and dish out fairly quickly. There’s no room for angst-driven whining about an element of a news story being “from your soul” or part of a larger effort to offer a metaphor about the futility of human pursuits in the vast nothingness of our universe.

That kind of talk will not only get you mocked openly by your peers, but very likely thrown out the door and kicked down the street until you enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program and stop bothering people with real jobs and looming deadlines.

Newspaper folks simply don’t have time to plumb the depths of their souls when someone says, “Deadline is in 15 minutes and your story is two inches too long. Make it fit or I’m going to cut it.” So Tom respected that I had a skin grown thick from dealing with editors and reporters and knew that I could handle his thoughts without being a crybaby.

When Tom was working his development editor mojo on Immaculate Deception, for instance, it usually went like this: He would read a chapter of the manuscript. A few nights later, we would meet with our newspaper friends and colleagues for after-deadline drinks. When everyone else had departed or the crowd had significantly diminished, he would settle in over his second (or third) pint and, in his inimitable style, cover point-by-point any issues he found with story, character, plot, theme and continuity.

We would discuss what he thought the particular issues were. Then we would trade ideas – basically just a “what if?” session. Our goal was to work within the bounds of the story but make it better than it was, rather than suggestion something that would alter the entire narrative and require extensive additional exposition or character development. Then I would take his thoughts and recommendations, merge them with what I was trying to achieve and apply them – or not. The point is that they were always worthy of considering and never off-point.

His perspective was particularly helpful to me in nailing down an overarching theme of the narrative that I hadn’t even realized was there – that of real estate development run amok. It’s what resulted in the main character losing his job as a reporter and – thanks to Tom’s input –  eventually is revealed as the underlying motivation for the story’s antagonist.

And because he is Tom – friend, colleague and fellow fan of many of the same genre titles – we had a shared language and reference points to use in our discussions. He was also familiar enough with my work and my personality to not be surprised by some of the other themes *cough*sex*cough* that ran through the novel. Try throwing your over-the-top adult material into a critique group full of grandmas who just want to write a family history for their grandkids and see what that gets you.

So if you find that your experiences with critique groups just aren’t working for you, I’d suggest perhaps finding one person among the group who does seem to get you, take him or her out for a beer, and set up a regular story workshopping session over a pint or two. It might prove to be far less painless (at least thanks to the beer) and a whole lot more productive.