Tag: thrillers

thrillers

Scandalous! Examining Sex in Banned Literary Classics.

“The material to which children are being exposed in certain classes in Republic Schools is shocking… This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The “f word” is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”–Wesley Scroggins, Springfield News Leader The book that Scroggins was suggesting banning from the public school curriculum back in 2010–not in the 1970s, as one might expect–was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a classic anti-war novel regularly listed in the top 100 books of the century by literary scholars. Reading his editorial, one might expect to find a graphic sex scene a la Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. In reality, not much happens. The PTSD-suffering hero, Billy Pilgrim, is transported (or believes he has been transported) by aliens into a zoo in which human beings are observed by little green men. An actress is sent there to be his mate. They’re both nude, a detail that is stated rather matter-of-factly in the text. The actress, Montana, is understandably frightened. And… wait for it… nothing happens.  Eventually, a couple passages later, it is revealed that they had intercourse with all the pornographic detail of a college manual on affirmative consent.  “In time, Montana came to love and trust Billy Pilgrim. He did not touch her until she made it clear that she wanted him to. After she had been on Tralfamadore for what would have been an Earthling week, she asked him shyly if he wouldn’t sleep with her. Which he did. It was heavenly.”–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.  Sexual morality is really subjective. And one man’s scandalous will always be another’s “what’s the big deal?”  But the bigger problem with critics of sex in literary classics is that they are interpreting the scene as about the physical act of intercourse and not seeing what the writer intended to reveal about the character or society through the sex scene. Literary writers–in fact, most writers that don’t specialize in erotica–have no interest in penning porn. What we want to do in an intimate scene isn’t titillate but provide perspective on our character and the world in which they live.  Vonnegut was writing about a character whose psyche had been wrecked by war. The alien scene mirrors his own abuse at the hands of German soldiers. The sex scene illuminates Billy Pilgrim’s own powerlessness with regard to one of the acts that people view as integral to their humanity–the choice whether or not to procreate with another person. Pilgrim doesn’t even have a choice whether or not his forced compliance will excite him or not, as he later has a wet dream thinking about this incident. The sex scene is about how his experiences have robbed him of agency.  Let’s take another scene in a more modern classic: Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. In the scene, which I won’t excerpt here because of length, a young boy is gang raped by bullies while his friend (the narrator) hides. The scene, while horribly painful to read, is necessary because it is what brings about the protagonist’s moral crisis, the running from which defines his life. One of the central questions that the protagonist asks in Hosseini’s book is can you be a good person if you look the other way when bad things happen? The answer that I believe it delivers is “no.” And getting to that answer, along with the protagonist, requires that the reader appreciate the horrors of what we turn a blind eye to.  If a reader sees the scene only as a horrifying gang rape, he misses the point–and, because of that, naturally wants the book banned. I’d argue that no parent wants their sixteen and seventeen year old kid reading about gang rape. What we should want, as a society though, is to create sensitive people that can understand how our humanity erodes when we ignore the horrors around us.  My all time favorite on the banned list because of sex is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I had the privilege of reading in high school. In the book, Cholly Breedlove rapes his daughter Pecola. The rape and incest is repulsive and depressing, even seen, as it is, through the eyes of the rapist.However, Morrison doesn’t include it for shock value. She is illuminating how a life filled with abandonment and demoralizing prejudice has warped Cholly, as well as trying to show how pain is passed through generations as sure as any abnormality in the DNA. As Tupac said, The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.  If there is a lesson for writers to take away from these banned classics, it is that a sex scene should always be about far more than sex. That’s what separates even graphic scenes in literature from pornography. If there is a lesson for readers, it’s to look beyond the descriptions of the physical acts to what the writer wants you to see: the characters, the emotions, the plot–even the moral.  In the best sex scenes, there’s always a moral.     

Read More

Let's Talk About Sex… Scenes

Continuing on my theme this week of how much of our human bodily functions should make it into fiction, I would like to discuss sex scenes.  Human beings have sex. If you’re a believer in Freudian psychoanalysis, it’s a primary reason why we do much of what we do. Freud postulated that how a person pursues intercourse, as well as what he or she does while having it, betrays that individual’s true nature.  “The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life,”-SIGMUND FREUD, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love  Even if a novelist doesn’t subscribe to Freud’s theories, they still have to deal with the fact that interactions between people have a physical component that can give rise to sexual tension.  With few exceptions, if a novelist wants to create believable fictional characters and show them over any length of time, interacting with anyone, they have to address sexual desire, attraction, and, sometimes, the act itself. And that means they have to grapple with how much to show or tell. There are different rules on how much detail to go into for different genres and sub-genres. In cozy mysteries, the action typically must happen off screen, if at all. In most of my favorite thrillers, there’s at least one sexual interaction that does more than cut away after the characters kiss. In romance novels featuring adult protagonists, catharsis is often achieved by the physical union of the romantic leads. How much catharsis is necessary depends on how much tension was built up throughout the whole book, as well as the tone of the novel.  As a writer of psychological suspense stories and domestic thrillers that often involve couples, I consider a sex scene pretty much a must have. I use them, however, not to titillate, but to illuminate the power dynamics at play between characters and reveal behaviors that a character would naturally cover up in a less intimate setting. The sex in the book isn’t just about the sex. It’s about showing a character’s true nature.  Showing and not telling demands a little detail. But it’s a delicate balance. The goal is to add tension, not turn off my readers with too much gushy prose. In my book, Lies She Told, my protagonist Liza is a writer that addresses this issue of how much is too much in one of the chapters. After penning a sex scene about Beth, the flawed hero of the book that she is writing, Liza says:  “Writing about sex is tricky. Readers want details to stoke their own erotic fantasies, but they don’t want to be in the imagined room listening to each moan, witnessing every awkward position change. Intercourse, even for the most liberated observer, is embarrassing. Porn is rife with examples. People say uncalled-for, dirty things. They obviously fake orgasms. They scream words more suited to the hook in a Daft Punk song. Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.”  When writing a sex scene, as when writing all scenes, I try to think about what my characters are trying to communicate to each other and say about themselves. I want to treat the act as another form of dialogue or inner monologue, intended to unveil personality traits to the reader. For some characters, showing what I want only requires describing a kiss and then fading to black. For others, I need more detail.  So, writers and readers, weigh in. What do you want to see? When do the details become too graphic? If we’re not writing 50 Shades, should we all be fading to black?

Read More

To Pee or Not to Pee? How much mundane human activity must an author include for a character to be believable.

 I will probably get myself banned from all future literary consideration by writing this, but James Joyce’s Ulysses did not blow my mind. I read the famed novel as an adult after it was named one of the best books of all time by a panel of experts at Harvard University. However, after I finished it–and I did finish it–what I remembered most was not my empathy for sensitive, cuckolded Leopold Bloom or the profoundness of his musings, but how often the main character had to urinate during the day.  In truth, Leopold Bloom probably didn’t go to the bathroom any more than an average person does on a given afternoon. Really, I think he went twice (though the peeing in the dream sequence clouds it for me). And I get that part of the point of Ulysses is to paint a portrait of a man going about his day. But even being subjected to Bloom’s necessary bodily functions twice in the course of a 265,000 word novel gave the act a relevance that, for me, took away from the larger work (or, at least, distracted me enough that I forgot what point of existence I was supposed to be pontificating upon at the moment). When I write, I always remember Ulysses, its acclaim, and then wrestle with the question of my characters’ basic needs as human beings. Does my point-of-view protagonist need to relieve him or herself during the course of the book in order to be believable? Can I just let the reader assume that urination has happened off screen in the space between chapters? Can I gloss over the potty breaks — i.e. After I got dressed and ready– or do I need to bring my audience into the loo? These same questions can be posed with regard to eating, drinking, sleeping, masturbating, etc. (All of which Ulysses does during his day around Dublin, I might add). Do authors need to show and tell? If so, how often? Personally, I’ve drawn the line differently based on specific characters and my selected point-of-view. In my upcoming book, One Little Secret, one female protagonist bathes while her husband is shaving, another puts on her makeup and thinks about her marriage, and yet another spends much of the third act fighting exhaustion after having not slept the prior night.  I included these details of washing, grooming, and sleeping not so much to make my characters realistic as to reveal something about their individual states of mind. The character in the bathroom scene is concerned that her husband finds other women more sexually enticing. As a result, the vulnerability of her nakedness juxtaposed with his grooming (perhaps for someone else) is something I wanted to show in order to reveal my character’s insecurities in an arena that would aggravate them. I included the makeup scene for a similar reason–it allowed an exploration of the character’s thoughts about a particular subject, as well as enabled her to cover something up, both literally and metaphorically.  In the book that I am currently working on, I write a bit about sleeping and eating because my character is struggling with how to mourn someone and accomplishing these basic tasks show something about her state of mind. Still, I worry about whether I am doing too much or not enough. I don’t want anyone to read one of my books and feel disconnected from a character because they didn’t do any of the necessary human things. At the same time, I have a limited number of words. If I spend a few hundred of them on bathroom breaks, perhaps the reader will get bored. Worse, he or she might put down the book thinking about how they’d like to flush it in the toilet.  So writer friends and readers, what is your opinion? Must writers include such details for realism’s sake or can we skip them?    

Read More

Irish Inspiration

Seanchaí: An ancient Irish oral storyteller whose tradition carried on through centuries.–Museum of Irish Emigration. EPIC.  I recently returned from a family vacation in Ireland with my immediate family, parents, siblings, and nephews. We planned the trip, in part, to trace the roots of the Holahan surname and learn more about my father’s heritage. Both sides of my dad’s family–the Holahans and the Whalens–are Irish, though they emigrated so long ago we weren’t sure that we would be able to learn much about them.  We learned quite a bit, as it turned out. Apparently, the family is descended from knights and the forbearers of the word hooligan, which may or may not explain a lot–depending on whom you ask.  The best part of Ireland, for me, however, was seeing how much the country celebrates its storytellers. As an author and semi-Irish American, I feel part of that storytelling tradition by virtue of watered-down blood and very much unfiltered passion. Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the museum of Irish Emigration, which devotes an entire exhibit to Irish (and Irish descent) storytellers from celebrated avant-garde 20th century literary icon James Joyce (Ulysses, Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man, Dubliners, etc.) to contemporary best selling author Emma Donoghue (Room).  Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.        

Read More

ThrillerFest in Photos

Last week, as I may have mentioned, I went to ThrillerFest in NYC. Had a fabulous time, and here’s the proof. The conference began with an absolutely fabulous party, thrown by the wonderful Talcott Notch crew of Gina Panettieri and Paula Munier. As you can see, a quorum of Miss Demeanors gathered together and had some fun. At that party were the great Lee Child and Lisa Gardner. They both signed my poster. You can’t see their signatures, but trust me, they’re there.  Following that was a barrage of workshops and panels. I heard Alexia Gordon talk about “Werewolves, Vampires or Witches” (in a panel moderated by Heather Graham). Hank Phillippi Ryan talked about “Playboys, Scoundrels or Foxy Floozies.”Paula Munier talked about “Editing Your Manuscript,” on a panel moderated by Lori Rader-Day. And then there was George R.R. Martin, who traded stories with Lee Child, Heather Graham, David Morrell and R.L. Stine. (On a personal note, I spent a good chunk of the 90s reading R.L. Stine to my children and he’s absolutely lovely.)  There were also tons of book signings and I came home with many wonderful things to read, among them a signed version of A Game of Thrones. Below is a picture of me meeting with George R.R. Martin. True to form, I could think of nothing fabulous to say, but we did agree it was nice that I did not have to travel a long way to the conference.   So there it is!A wonderful time. Anyone else have any ThrillerFest stories to share?

Read More

Steve Berry

Last week I went to the ThrillerFest Conference in NYC for the first time, and as part of it, I signed up for a Master Craft Class. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Steve Berry’s class.     I’ve been working on a manuscript I thought was good. The opening pages received a finalist award for a fairly impressive literary competition. So I wasn’t concerned about the writing, but I worried they lacked oomph. And if you are writing a mystery or a thriller, oomph is a very nice thing to have. Enter Steve Berry. His class went from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and he gave lots of concrete information about plotting and openings and so on, and then, he met with each of us, one-on-one. I am talking about meeting one-on-one with a man who has sold 25 million books! Or 25 million and 5 because I went out and bought a bunch of them. So I sat down across from him and handed him my pages. I think he likes to read them fresh, to get a sense of how someone just picking up the book might feel about them. He read the first paragraph, the second, the third. Then he went back to the first paragraph, the second, the third. Then he put his head in his hands, which was probably a bad sign. And then he began to ask questions. Who’s this? What do you mean to say here? What’s this? Fortunately I knew the answers because I had spent a lot of time thinking about the plot and the characters, and then he got to about page 6 and said, “This is where the book begins.” He was absolutely right, and it had never occurred to me. Then he began asking about chapter 2, 3, 4, 5 and he began brainstorming how to set up all of that starting with the changes to chapter 1. I was writing down notes like a maniac.  It was genuinely the most helpful experience I’ve ever had. I walked out of there, or perhaps better to say I crawled out of there, with a strong sense of how my story should go. Got home, starting making the changes, and now feel so enthusiastic. My manuscript has oomph.  

Read More

No One Should Fear The Big Bad Thriller Writer

On Thursday, one of the biggest conferences for the mystery/thriller writer community commences: ThrillerFest. I’m looking forward to seeing writers that I’ve gotten to know over the years and listening to their thoughts on our mutual craft. I am also looking back, remembering my first Thrillerfest–before I was published.   I had an agent at the time but no deals and no books. I went to the conference feeling completely outclassed and intimidated. The other writers, I thought, would feel that I was a phony for infringing on their territory without having proven myself. They wouldn’t want to associate with me. I’d show up at the cocktail party and be completely shunned.  That didn’t happen. I wish I could say it was because I am particularly charming, but it’s really because the mystery/thriller writer community is such a supportive group. There are a few reasons, I think, for this. The first is that most writers remember what it was like to be penning their first novel and feeling the same uncertainty that new writers feel. They identify with new writers and, with that identification, comes sympathy and a genuine sense of camaraderie.  A second reason is that most writers don’t see themselves in competition with other writers. A truly great book can generate interest in the genre and lift sales for everyone. Yes, I’d like my book to the be the one that does this. But, if it’s yours, it helps my sales too. For the most part, we all genuinely want one another to succeed.    This also goes for writers in our publishing houses. A great book means more money that the house can spend on an advance for another great book, maybe by a different author. To put a twist on the cliché about rising tides, a good rain fills the aquifers that we all drink from.  The other day, I was fortunate to meet a woman in my town that is writing her first novel. Her daughter, whom I had only met once, had read my last book and mentioned to her mother that we belonged to the same pool club. The next time that we were all at the club, she introduced herself and told me about her novel. She was clearly nervous that I might be annoyed talking with her about it. But I was anything but. It was so nice to be able to share my experience with her and listen to her own, which in many ways mirrored trials that I had gone through when starting out.  I know most of my fellow MissDemeanors feel the same way and are very generous with their time at conferences. So, if you run into any of us — or really any thriller writer (even Stephen King who, the one time I met him, was amazingly lovely and generous with his time) go say hi. They’ll probably be happy to chat.    – As far as most authors are concerned, they’re not competing against another author for a book sale, we are com

Read More

Trusting Your Gut

As a journalist and now author, I’ve had more than a dozen editors. The best ones finessed my writing and ideas, getting the best story possible out of me and my research. The worst ones used me as a living tool to tell the story they wanted in their voices. The former resulted in some of my best work. The latter in some of my worst. I strongly subscribe to the every writer needs an editor doctrine. But I also believe that every writer needs an editor that respects him or her enough to bring out the best in the individual author. Writers need the freedom to tell their stories the way that resonates with them. The editor can help focus an author’s ideas and tell him or her where they are losing the reader, where the characters are falling flat, where the scene isn’t translating, etc. But the editor shouldn’t use the writer to tell the story in his or her head. It won’t work. It will read as strained as the process of creating the story will invariably become.     

Read More

Create A Scene!

The beach air smells like laurel. Wild and green, the scent saturates the air, thinning the musky ocean beyond into a faint note in an otherwise floral perfume. I inhale it and realize how wrong writers are to say that the air smells of the beach. This beach in Nicaragua smells like no sandy strip of waterfront that I’ve ever been on before. Back home, in New Jersey, the beach smells like food. Salt-water taffy and charcoal grills. The crashing waves compete with the shouts of children, the calls of parents, and the blare of portable speakers blasting salsa and Bruce Springsteen. The humid air pulses with the energy of people: sweating, dancing, laughing, browning. In Nicaragua, I hear birds. Wind. Monkeys. No two beach scenes are the same. As I writer, I have to remember that and never get lazy with my descriptions. A beach in my story is a specific beach, just as particular as any character. Moreover, the way a beach scene is described depends on the individual that I have created doing the describing. A woman with a young child might note that the sand is too hot for feet not-yet-hardened by a lifetime of bad shoes. A surfer would admire the wave hitting the rocks and the way the white water travels in a perfect line from the cliff on the left to the one on the right. Scenes must always be specific, and they must always be viewed through the lens of particular character.   

Read More

Search By Tags