Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Readers Want and Don’t Want are Often the Same Thing: Sex

I write hardboiled murder mysteries set in 1940s because I want to explore the darker (noir) side of human nature, pondering why people do the nasty things they do to each other. I want the story and all of its details raw and bare, so the life lessons speaks for themselves, without a didactic message from me, the author, preaching what the moral imperative should be for readers to understand and follow. I believe that what I write should reflect the realities of life, albeit as I see them, as if I was holding up a mirror for society to see itself and decide what changes need be made.

When my first novel, THICK AS THIEVES, made its debut in 2008, I received rave comments from my circle of friends and acquaintances, with a few teasing me about the sex scenes in the story, asking me where the Chinatown brothel mentioned might be located, how I knew what the inside of a brothel would look like, while close relatives confided they were surprised by my sexual frankness, which revealed a side of my character they didn’t know existed. One relative attempted to hijack a conversation at a picnic, telling family members I wrote “smut.” A well respected uncle raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t know what that says about me, I’ve already read it twice.” The lines on how much sex should be in a story are blurry, but what’s clear to me is that sex is an important factor in what people choose to read and/or feel comfortable having on their library shelves.
I’ve written three more novels since that picnic: SIGN OF THE DRAGON, UNREASONABLE PERSUASION, and UNHOLY ALLIANCE. One editor trimmed sex scenes from DRAGON, not wanting them to be distracting to my growing audience, while my publisher offered encouragement: “Leave them in,” because she felt as I do that those scenes add to the total picture of my protagonist, Alan Stewart, a twenty-one year old discovering to his surprise that women find him attractive. That wasn’t always the case for him, growing up a skinny kid in a household with strong Christian values. As a young adult, he’s coming to terms with his masculinity on several levels, all at the same time, one of those levels being his sexuality, which is very consistent with a young man of any era. My goal is to depict Alan as a complete character, not just a hardboiled crime fighter, who emerges fully grown, hard and sullen, giving the reader no idea what made him the way he is. I want readers to feel like they know Alan, know why they should care about him, and know with some degree of certainty how he will act when he faces the challenges life will throw in front of him.

With the release of my fourth novel, UNHOLY ALLIANCE, based on the true murder of a Seattle police officer during the Prohibition Era, the investigation takes us into another brothel, Goon Dip Wong’s pleasure emporium, a notorious establishment in Seattle’s Chinatown. Detective Stewart goes undercover to follow-up on the only lead presented him, a vague description of a prostitute on an outcall. He has to get close enough to potential witnesses, who happen to be prostitutes and pimps, to surreptitiously interview them. So of course there are sex scenes. What was I going to have Alan do, play strip checkers with the girls?  Of course not, but I think I handled the scenes very well, not overly dwelling on the physical sex acts. I thought the jealously of Alan’s partner, Vera Deward, which surfaced as she waited for Alan, added a richness to the story. My early rewards were along the lines of: “This is your best work yet!” Soon following, came repeated whispers from family: “Neil’s gone a bit too far this time. Have him reel in the sex scenes.” When another close relative heard the latest critique, he responded that he was going to make sure he put ALLIANCE at the top of his reading queue. So this still begs the question: What do the readers want? More sex or less? Should I keep the sex in or take it out?

Arguably, a lot—maybe most—of society’s moral teachings are based around sexual issues. How we view and approach sex says a lot about who we are, what we want in life, and how we identify ourselves. Raymond Obstfeld[1] opines that there are two components to sex: pursuit and culmination. The pursuit is the romantic element and the culmination the sexual act. Writers can either emphasize the romance or dwell on the sexual acts themselves, depending on their preferred genre, predilection, and style. I prefer a balance between the romance and sexual act, but acknowledge my focus is primarily on the romance. I love a good chase, the tension that accompanies it, which makes for a richly deserved payoff for the reader—and writer, too. I see the sex as more symbolic of the expression of love between the characters, rather than merely a lustful experience that means as much to those involved as a good dinner and an after dinner drink. Romantic scenes can lead to the payoff of a sexual act, but I don’t believe that is always necessary in writing. I find that the rewards of a well told romantic pursuit don’t always require a sexual act to make them fulfilling; they can be rewarding in themselves, if the circumstances of why the culminating act couldn’t happen at this moment are explained adequately or enough so they leave the reader hungry for more.

Enough about my writing, let’s look at what I like to read, starting with the past masters of the genre, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who led the way and got it completely right. Hammett’s Sam Spade can seduce a woman but then turn her over to the cops for murder, despite how he feels for her in THE MALTESE FALCON, while Chandler preferred to have Philip Marlowe comment on the debauchery of L.A. as an observer. Chandler opined in an interview that he thought sex and romance got in the way of a mystery plot, serving as an unnecessary distraction to a good story. Modern master, James Elroy, on the other hand, avoids inclusion of women in his plots, at least as fully drawn characters, but his LA CONFIDENTIAL stands as a masterpiece, richly deserving of the praise and honor it has received. Now, moving away from noir to modern murder mysteries, I enjoy reading Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller series, including THE LINCOLN LAWYER. I find his characters richly drawn, well balanced, and he includes a modest amount of sex.

As much as I love what these authors have written, I avoid reading their work while writing my own stories, so as not to have their plotting, pacing, taste, or style unduly influence my voice, because I feel I have found the right balance of sexual expression for my readers.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"Crafting Scenes" and "Staying Hungry"

A few nights ago, while writing my fifth novel, I needed to take a break and let the murder mystery story I'm working on percolate a little before I got back to it. So I leaned back in my office chair and gazed at my over-stuffed bookshelf, and my eyes landed on Raymond Obstfeld's "Novelist's Essential Guide to CRAFTING SCENES," published by Wrtier's Digest. I thought that since it was already on my bookshelf I must have read it before, so I pulled it out to check, thumbed through it, and saw instantly some nuggets of value, appropro to what I'm working on at the moment. So I did as any good student would do and began reading the text. I must say that I'm impressed with Obstfeld's rich knowledge of the subject and his skill in delivering his message. Although my ego told me I was an experienced author with some degree of success, the eternal student inside yelled loudly that there were more lessons to learn, and Mr. Obstfeld was the one to teach them. I particularly like how Obstfeld uses writing examples, many from his own published novels, to illustrate his points, much like the very well-spoken Robert McKee does in STORY, which I also found to be very helpful for authors and screenwriters. While glad that I'm an old dog capable of learning new tricks, I'm also reminded of an early Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, STAY HUNGRY, which featured him as Mr. Universe and focused on his many talents outside of weightlifting/body building, which he attributed to his hunger for life and the lessons to be learned. He told the interviewer it was all about staying hungry, an appetite that took Arnold a long way, and is also great advice for the aspiring and experienced writer. "Feed your head," become a master of your craft.