This is a follow-up on my post regarding sex.

A lady friend of mine (probably in her sixties) told me she was put off by the chapter in Sin & Contrition which is entitled Finding Out. This chapter deals with teenagers discovering sex, and their reactions to their discoveries.  There are various reactions: disgust, fascination, bravado, feeling left out, etc.  While she didn’t say so, I think what put my friend off were the descriptions of three boys discovering heterosexuality, and of one boy achieving sexual maturity.  She said, “It was just too much.  I had been through some of that with my sons, and I didn’t want to be reminded of it.”  Naturally, I didn’t ask her about her experience with her sons, but evidently it wasn’t good.

In thinking about this feedback, I’ve had several thoughts.  First of all, I didn’t intend to offend any one’s sensibilities.  I had been through what I wrote about (many years ago), and there’s nothing exaggerated in any way.  I remember it clearly, and I remember feeling much as LaMarr is reported as feeling.  In retrospect, it’s neither good nor bad; it’s just part of growing up.

My second thought was, ‘maybe I should have made it less explicit’.  (What happens is pretty clear.)  But it’s not erotic.  Some readers might consider it ‘disgusting’, but on this basis, lots of body functions would be so labeled.  The problem with making it less explicit, is that it loses its emotional impact.  LaMarr experiences his first ejaculation.  He sees it; the reader sees it.  He reacts emotionally, and the reader has an opportunity to empathise.  If it is written in such a way that what he sees is vague, it becomes more difficult for the reader to share his feelings.

As I said in the previous post, I don’t believe in explicitness about events that please or feel good to a character.  With a little hinting, we know what he or she is feeling.  But for strange or painful events, I think it is harder for us to tune into what the character is feeling.  We have a natural tendency to deny difficult or hurtful things.  So for these events, I may feel the need to be explicit. 

The battle scene in Sin & Contrition in which Mason is killed and LaMarr lies weeping over his friend’s body is  another example.

(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)


Those of you who have read my novels will know that there is a fair amount of heterosexual activity  included.

I think that, for most adults, sex is something we enjoy, and we have a natural curiosity about the experiences of others (short of being voyeuristic).  But, from a writer’s point of view, there is more to it than that.  What we do, with whom, when, how, and the way we feel about it are character-defining aspects.  For example, Ellen’s first real boyfriend in Sin & Contrition  is Rick, whom she admires greatly: he is good-looking and two years older than she.  She engages in some heavy petting with him, but she dumps him when he pressures her to go further.  Later, however, with Rick’s younger brother, Gene, she lets down all her barriers.  Ellen is self-confident and intelligent; she recognises that Rick wants to use her, while Gene really loves her.

Also in Sin & Contrition, Gary, who is bright and has a big ego, but not much common sense, makes his life-defining mistake: he cheats on his wife.  She takes their daughter and leaves him.  He slips  into alcoholism.  But, with the prospect of getting her back, and, with a little help from his friends, he gives up alcohol, and becomes a model husband and father.

In my opinion, the problem for a writer is: how far does one go?  At one extreme, one doesn’t ‘go there’.  This is the ‘romance but no sex’ school of thought typified by Victorian and earlier novels, where two characters get married, and the story resumes a month later.  I can guess what might have happened, but I’d like to know!  People are capricious and unpredictable.  That’s what makes them so interesting.

At the other extreme, one goes there and wallows in it.  This is the ‘sex before romance’ school of thought typified by some chic lit, where even the size of the equipment is described.  This is probably intended to arouse, but for me, it gets confusing.  I wonder, “am I reading something arousing, or am I reading something enlightening?  Which is it?  It can’t be both!”

So, I struggle to steer a middle course, trying not to let the reader doubt what has happened, in at least a general sense, but more importantly how the characters feel about it.  I don’t use slang words, except when a character would be out of character not to use them.  I try to keep the passage somewhat oblique and non-descriptive, using non-traditional words.  In a later post, I’ll discuss some rare instances where I’ve written explicit (but brief) passages, and I’ll explain why I did so.

Comments from the readers are welcome!


My third novel, Efraim’s Eye, a thriller, with romance, has just been accepted for publication by Strategic Book Publishing.  So Efraim’s Eye is about a corrupt charity which provides funding to a terrorist.  The terrorist is planning to knock the London Eye over into the River Thames with 800 people locked inside the capsules.  The plot is discovered by a consultant who audits the charity with an Isreali woman who works for the British head office of the charity.  The consultant and the Israeli become lovers, but can they stop the terrorist, and do they have a future together? In my post about literary agents, I promised to discuss publishers later, so it’s time to make good  on that promise. First of all, I’m hardly an expert on publishers, but I think I’ve learned enough to offer some (hopefully) useful comments. In my view, there are three types of  book publishers:

  • self publishers (like Lulu)
  • co-operative publishers (like Strategic Books), and
  • conventional publishers

Conventional publishers are the ones we are most familiar with: Harper & Collins, McGraw Hill, Penguin Books, etc.  They receive manuscripts from literary agents, and after editing, they print, promote and sell the book, taking full responsibility for everything that happens.  They pay the author royalties (out of which  the agent takes a commission).  They use various techniques to induce the book stores to carry the book.  But book stores generally take books only on a ‘sale or return’ basis.  If the book doesn’t sell, the publisher has to take the unsold copies back, and provide the book store with a refund for the unsold copies.  The return of unsold copies represents a major risk for conventional publishers. Interestingly, Amazon does not operate on a ‘sale or return’ basis: it buys books outright at heavily discounted prices, which it can command because there is no risk of  returns.  Amazon also has a stocking advantage: it faces a very large  market with centralised stock, instead of facing a local market with local stocks as book stores must do. In my mind, conventional publishers work on a ‘push’ basis.  They use advertising and  promotion liberally to get the books into the book stores.  They push books into the stores to drive up volume.  They work hard to get media coverage of their books: again pushing their books. Other publishers (self publishers and co-operative publishers) work on a  ‘pull’  basis.  They tend to be rather passive in a sales and marketing context, relying on their authors to create demand for the book. I’m not really familiar with self-publishers. but my understanding is that for a fixed fee, they will print and bind a completed manuscript as an agreed number of copies.  All other responsibilities fall on the author.  If the author is able to sell some copies, s/he can pocket all the revenue. Co-operative publishers (like Strategic Books) lie between self publishers and conventional publishers.   They won’t necessarily accept every submitted manuscript.  Those that are accepted are subject to cost and revenue sharing with the author.  The author pays an up-front fee to get the book into print.  This fee includes layout, typesetting, back and front cover design, ISBN number, copyright, establishing a price, listing of the book in catalogues, and with the online book sellers.  They make the book available through their distribution network.  They insist that their books be professionally edited.  (They will either do it for a fee, or the author can have it done.)  Strategic Books uses three print-on-demand printers: one in the USA, one in the  UK and one in Australia.  Print-on-demand raises  the cost of printing, because – in theory – a press run could be as short as one book.  But, on the other hand there are no unwanted books  printed. The co-operative publisher will typically offer the author a 50% royalty.  Which means that the author is entitled to half of the difference between sales of the book and the cost of printing it.  Authors can buy copies of their book at slightly more than  the cost of printing it. After the book is printed the co-operative publisher will provide the author with a website and will write and issue a press release.  They have considerable marketing and promotional advice which they make available.  All of this is included in the up-front fee.  There are a number of other services which are optional at extra cost.  These include reformatting the book as a Kindle and eBook, participation in major book fairs, special websites and press releases.  Book signings were included in the basic fee, but they are no longer offered, perhaps because of the difficulty of getting book stores to carry books which are non-returnable.  (I offered about ten independent book stores in London the opportunity to hold stock for them, but none was interested.  Not  enough book shelf space; too much trouble for one book.)  Recently, Strategic Books struck a deal with Barnes and Noble where B & N would agree to stock pre-approved books in certain selected stores, provided that the author would reimburse them for unsold copies.  The reason I haven’t pursed this is that Strategic Books wanted me to take 100% of the risk (on the down side), while they retained 50% of the benefits on the up side.  I argued that this wasn’t equitable and fair – to no avail.  The business model for co-operative publisher is based on no returns. In all other respects, I find Strategic Books professional, competent and fair.

I should add that more recently, Strategic Books offers authors the option to make a book available to bookstores on a sale or return basis.  There is a fee for this (about $350) which includes issuing a press release that the book is available on sale or return and which covers the publisher’s administrative costs.  The fee is also used as a deposit against the costs associated with returns.  (So, the author still has 100% of the risk and only 50% of the profits.)  But, I think I’m going to try this with my sixth novel when it is published at the end of 2014.

Literary Agents

Every author would probably like to have an agent.  After all, an agent can probably find the author a publisher.

I don’t have an agent.  I work directly with a co-operative publisher.  (More about this in a later blog.)  My experience with agents hasn’t been good.  When my first book was ready to publish, a friend referred me to the Writer’s Handbook, which lists the UK and US literary agents.  I wrote to all of the relevant US agents, and in that process, I was referred to my current publisher.  When my second book was ready for publication, I wrote to all of the relevant US and UK agencies.  I say ‘relevant’ because a particular agent may not be interested in specific genres (romance, science fiction, etc.).  When I say I ‘wrote’ to the agents, this can be quite a time-consuming task, because I double-checked the agent’s ‘submission requirements’ against what was posted on the agent’s website.  In my experience, most agents want:

  • a cover letter introducing the writer and the book; it should also say why the agent should be interested in the writer and his/her book.
  • a one page synopsis of the book
  • a brief biography of the author
  • the first three chapters of the book, double spaced, Times New Roman #12, on one side only

The vast majority of agents want the submission via post as a hard copy.  (This saves them the time and expense of having to print the material.)  A few will accept email submissions; several agents protest that they are concerned about becoming infected with viruses.  A tiny minority accept submissions via their website, so that the author is requested to paste the desired material into the windows on the website.  For many of the agents to whom I submitted, the bundle was over eighty pages, and, if one wanted the material returned (I didn’t), it was necessary to include a self-addressed envelope with return postage.

Most agents say that it will take about eight weeks before they are able to respond; some say that they receive over one thousand submissions per week.  At the time I submitted my first novel, quite a number of agents were saying that authors should advise them if the work was being submitted to more than one agent.  For me, this was a coded way of saying, “We are not going to compete for your work.”  Recently, an agent’s website made the point that “we don’t engage in beauty contests”.  I didn’t particularly like this attitude.  Do agents really expect authors to make one-at-a-time, serial submissions?  If so, based on the agent’s typical eight week response time, it would take a year to approach six agents.

With my first two novels, all the agents I contacted did send form letter responses, making the point that because of the number of submissions received, they could not elaborate on their reasons, other than to say “it’s not for us.  Good luck.”

With my third novel, I made submissions to thirty-one UK agents.  After about ten weeks, I sent follow-up letters (or emails) to those twelve from whom I had heard nothing.  Months later, there are still seven who have not responded at all (not counting those who say “if you don’t hear from us, assume we aren’t interested.)

This must be a difficult time for literary agents.  Independent book stores are going out of business; big book store chains are cutting back.  Amazon, with its purchasing and discounting policies, is putting great pressure on publishers’ margins.  Kindle and other eBook forms have very low margins.  And to top it off, Amazon has started to cut deals directly with big name authors.

But I continue to believe that literary agents have a place in the world.  They can be excellent coaches/critics for their authors (a role that publishers have largely abandoned and I doubt that Amazon will ever take up).  If one believes, as I do, that there will always be bookstores – in some form – the route into them will be via the ‘push publishers’ and literary agents.

It seems to me that there are some things that literary agents could do to make their life easier (and longer-lasting):

  • better define what it is that they are looking for (or what they’re not interested in).  This implies that some agents should consider specialising in limited genres.
  • shorten their decision-making process.  I believe that the first three chapters with every initial submission is a waste of time and money for everyone involved.  Reading the first ten pages of a book, one can tell whether the author can write.  If the submission passes the genre test (via the short cover letter and brief synopsis) and the author can write, the next step could be the first three chapters and – maybe – a face-to-face meeting.


In my experience, capable, honest critics are hard to come by.  All writers need thoughtful criticism, but it’s not easy to find. 

My wife reads my material, and she often points out passages that could be improved.  Mostly, she’s right.  Occasionally, I’ll disagree with her, but her comments are always valuable.

One of my friends read the first few chapters of a novel I was writing with an existential theme.  He found it ‘boring’, so I have set it aside for now.  Interestingly, his wife was fascinated with my descriptions of college life at Notre Dame University.  She said, ‘but you went to Yale.  How do you know so much about Notre Dame?’  The answer to this question can be found in my post about Research.  (There is also a passage about Cornell University in Sin & Contrition.  My father went to Cornell and I have visited the campus several times as a child/teenager, but I had to research Cornell in depth to write that passage.)

Most friends who are asked to be critics, recognise that their feelings about a book are likely to be coloured by their preferences.  Some people like war stories: others enjoy love stories.  According to their preferences, they like a book or dislike it.  But this preference may not distinguish good writing from bad writing.

There are, of course, lots of professional critics out there.  They include literary agents and publishers.  Of necessity, their most important criterion is: will this sell?  Then they examine the quality of the writing.  The decision ‘will this sell?’ is not as straight forward as one might think.  We can all mention books that should never have been published, and some that were initially refused publication but which caught fire with the public when they appeared.

Similarly, a book reviewer has to consider what the subscribers to his/her newspaper like to read.

Perhaps academics have the least biased viewpoint.  No commercial considerations are present to colour their judgement, and they can focus on the quality of the writing.  But book publishing is a business, and, as a business, commercial decisions are essential.  Besides, for the author, seeing his/her ‘creation’ published represents an important recognition.

It is very easy for a writer to produce less than perfect quality material.  Before even considering ‘will this sell?’, there are many things that can go wrong:

  • grammar and syntax errors (a good editor should catch these)
  • spelling errors (ditto)
  • excessive wordiness
  • insufficient clarity
  • stereotyped characters
  • characters without credibility
  • excessively complex plot
  • plot is too simple to be interesting
  • dialogue is stilted
  • confusing sequence of events
  • use of confusing language
  • etc.
  • etc.

A well-known American author wrote about a female character: ‘her pussy was like a baseball glove’.  I thought ‘Whoa!  What does that mean?’  Then it occurred to me that the writer was trying to use unique language to differentiate himself from the hoi polloi of writers.  OK.  But, still, what does it mean?  Does it mean that the lady was leathery?  had a pocket? was worn? was used to play a game? or something else?  To me, ambiguous writing is not good writing, even if it is unique.

So, I seriously and sincerely invite the reader to comment on my blog and to criticise my novels.  Because I’m still learning, you may find that I agree with you.


The setting(s) where the action(s) takes place in a novel is, I think, quite important.

In our day-to-day existence, we are quite conscious of where we are, and, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place, we tend to look around, taking in our surroundings.  We want to know and understand where we are.

For a writer, the challenge is to describe the setting sufficiently so that, to the reader, it seems plausible and real, but without so much detail as to be boring.  Sometimes one ties to paint a word picture of the setting.  Here, for example, (from Sin & Contrition) is Joseph Bishop’s study in the rectory at Central Presbyterian Church in New York:

The office looked south onto Sixty-Third Street, and the late morning sun streamed through the large windows, whose cream-coloured drapes had been pulled aside.  The pastor’s desk faced the windows, and I was seated in one of three brown leather, upholstered arm chairs in front of him.  Behind him, and covering the right-hand wall were over-flowing bookshelves – to the point where some newer acquisitions had to be content with being piled on the floor below.  The left-hand wall was covered with framed photographs – mostly black and white, but a few in colour – they were, without exception, pictures of people of all ages and walks of life.  

In other cases, it may be more appropriate to set the scene with sound descriptions.  Here is the description of the butcher shop in Sicily (from Fishing in Foreign Seas):

The butcher shop was packed with people awaiting their turns.  There were four butchers behind the counter, and it was noisy with the sounds of their shouted exchanges with customers and the ‘thwock’ ‘thwock’ of their cleavers hitting the huge cutting blocks. 

Of course, it is easier as a writer to have ‘been there and done that’.  The scenes in Sicily in Fishing in Foreign Seas reflect my personal experiences on the island.  As a brief diversion, I would add that my wife and I are just back from Sicily, and one of my agenda items on the brief trip was to take the ferrovia circumetna (the narrow-gauge railroad around Mr. Etna).  This would have given us the opportunity to see the lava flows, the wineries, the farms, the towns and the people who live at the base of Mt. Etna – all from the comfort of a moving seat.  But it  wasn’t to be.  The only day available was a holiday, and the trains weren’t running.

It is not essential to have actually been to the setting being described in the novel, as long as: the setting is important to the story, and the reader will find it interesting, and the writer has researched the place well enough that readers who have been there will find the description accurate.  For example, I have never been to a lingerie manufacturing plant in Taipei, but here is the one in Sin  & Contrition:

The Blue Dragon warehouse fascinated Bettina as much as the production hall.  Here, down the center of the room, and reaching floor to ceiling, were hundreds of storage cells.  Larger cells, at one end, contained bolts of fabric.  Smaller cells contained labels, herringbone, wires etc., but most of the cells were for the storage of completed lingerie. One side of the cells was the ‘production side’, where completed products were sent to storage and raw materials were withdrawn from storage.  The opposite side was the ‘shipping/receiving side’ where raw materials were placed into storage and finished goods were withdrawn for shipment to customers.  The warehouse was under computer control so that the basket of thirty-four B Precious Lady Pink Springtime bras would be automatically moved into cell BJ59, and the quantity automatically added to the stock level of that product.