Review: The Moral Imagination

This non-fiction work, subtitled The Art and Soul of Building Peace, was recommended to me by a colleague who is a peacebuilder. Since I am a trustee (chairman) of the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK peacebuilding charity, I felt I should read it. The book confirms much of what I have learned on the subject, and it explains why so many in the general public (including those who should know better) misunderstand it.

The author is John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University and a Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado. His academic work draws on his experience in the field as a mediator, negotiator, peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant. At the international level, this has involved input into peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Columbia and Nepal.  He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He is a Mennonite Christian. He currently works for the foundation Humanity United.

John Paul Lederach

Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.

Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.

Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.

An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.

Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.

In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.

Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.

In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.

Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.

Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.

This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.

Edgar Allen Poe on Vivid Writing

The http://www.writerswrite.co.za website has a compilation of advice from famous writers on writing.

“Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. He was born 19 January 1809, and died 7 October 1849.

Edgar Allen Poe

He was one of the first American short story writers. He is known as the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and for contributing to the emerging science fiction genre. His works include classics like The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher.

Poe was ahead of his time in his writing. He understood that less is more and he had a critical plan for each piece that he wrote.

In his essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, he explains the elements that make up a good story. Poe takes us through the creation of his poem, ‘The Raven’. He says he selected this well-known work to show that nothing is in it by accident. He writes ‘…that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’”

“Here are five tips that Poe gives on vivid writing:

  1. The work should have a vivid, original effect. He writes ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ He says that tone and incident should be worked together to have the desired effect (mood) on the reader, ‘whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone’.
  2. Do not overwrite. To have the desired effect, it should be read in one sitting. He says, ‘if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.’ Obviously, novels do not necessarily fit this rule, but he believed this was essential for effect. Perhaps our modern unputdownable novels with shorter chapters have the same effect on the reader. The ideal length for a poem, he says, is one hundred lines.
  3. Know the ending before you begin. He believes you need to know this to be able to plot effectively. He says, ‘Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.’
  4. Choose a setting that works for the story. Poe first decides what he wants to say in the poem, or rather what he wants the characters to say, and only once that is in place, does he decide where to set the poem. He says he needed to bring the lover and the Raven together in a specific way, ‘— and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture.’
  5. The tone should reflect the theme. He says the choice to allow the raven, a bird of ill omen to repeat one word, ‘Nevermore’, in a monotonous, melancholy tone at the end of each stanza allowed him to ask: ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply.’ The melancholy tone echoes the theme of death.”

Review: Granduncle Bertie

This time it is one of my novels that’s reviewed, by Maria Victoria Beltran for Readers’ Favorite.

She gives it a 5 for Appearance, 5 for Plot, 4 for Development, 5 for Formatting, 4 for Marketability, and 5 for Overall Opinion.

She goes on to say: “Granduncle Bertie by William Peace is an inspirational novel about
one man’s quest for a peaceful death. The story unravels when
Albert Smithson asks his grandniece Sarah to help him write his
memoir. In the last seven years, the two have been partners in
writing popular children’s picture books, with Granduncle Bertie as
the writer and Sarah as the illustrator. As the story unravels, Sarah
finds out that Bertie is traumatized by the excruciating death of his
father and suffers from thanatophobia or fear of death. He has lived
a good life and has overcome many difficulties, and now he wants
his memoir to reflect his inner struggles. It will chronicle events in
his life that make him realize that to die in a peaceful state, he has
to accomplish three conditions.
William Peace’s Granduncle Bertie is a thought-provoking read. All
human beings begin life, and all human beings die. This is
undoubtedly a theme relevant to all of us. William Peace’s literary
style engages his readers quickly in considering essential questions
not only about how we want to die but also about how we want to
live. Narrated from the point of view of Sarah, a woman in her late
twenties, the tone is chatty and informal. Most of us can relate to
Granduncle Bertie as a familiar family story. What makes it unique
is that it attempts to explore a sensitive theme. This book suggests
that exploring one’s fear of death may allow us to live more fully.

Highly Recommended!”

Publishing Today

Below are some of Harry Bingham’s thoughts on the state of book publishing today. Harry is the founder of Jericho Writers. It’s a good time to be a writer!

Harry Bingham

Self-publishing

Ten years ago, self-pub wasn’t really a thing. Now it certainly is. These days, there’s no longer any good public data for the scale of the self-pub market, but very roughly you should assume that self-published titles sell as many copies as all Big 5 titles on Amazon combined – in other words, one heck of a lot. Indeed, there are corners of the reading globe (romance and erotica especially) where self-publishing utterly dominates.

What’s more, indie authors make money. Again, public data is no longer available, but when it was, it was clear that at every single income level you care to name, there were more indie authors earning at that level than trad-published ones. More million-dollar indies. More $100K indies. And so on down. I’m certain that that basic picture hasn’t changed.

Multiple imprints

A friend of mine is currently selling a book, via a top British agent at a top British agency. The list of editors who are receiving that book include (of course) all the Big 5. It may surprise you to learn that the book doesn’t go to just one editor per publisher. It goes to as many editors, at as many imprints, as may be right for the book. From memory, the book is therefore going to two editors in different bits of HarperCollins, the same at PRH, and so on.

If an auction arises, those two HarperCollins editors, let’s say, might find themselves bidding against each other. A PRH / S&S merger wouldn’t necessarily reduce the number of editors that an agent pitched to. It would just change the email addresses of one recipient.

The long tail

Good publishing simply does not stop at the big firms.

My friend had as many small- to mid-sized publishers on that submissions list as Big 5 editors. And honestly? I think it’s simply 50/50 whether the book ends with a large house or a small one. The right publisher for that book will be one where the editorial, design and marketing visions align the best … along with a dollop of good chemistry between author and editor. A real passion from a Faber or a Bloomsbury or a Granta would (to my mind) be a better deal than a more lukewarm offer from a larger firm. (Those are British firms, but there are similar firms in the US and elsewhere too.)

The quality in some of these smaller houses is incredible. You often get more daring publishing, greater willingness to take risks, and generally bolder decisions at every level of the firm. You also, as an author, actually feel important to the firm, which is not something that’s easy to feel when you’re in the grip of one of the big machines. I once rejected an offer from a top, top quality British independent and I’ve always wonder if I did the right thing. If I had to guess, I’d say probably not.

Money

Most authors I know don’t ultimately care about money anyway. Yes, they want to be paid properly for their work, and they want that side of things to be handled with proper justice and professionalism, but the real payoff is more intangible. It’s the passion of a publisher, the respect of a community of peers, the book in the bookshop, the reviews and comments. All those things are every bit as likely – perhaps likelier – for authors working with strong indie presses as for those working with the Big 5.

The Big 5 firms are great. The indie publishers are better than they’ve ever been. Self-publishing creates a tremendously inspiring and effective route for countless authors.

Author-led marketing tools are the best they’ve ever been.

Barnes & Noble and Waterstones (respectively the flagship bookchains in the US and UK) are both in better shape than ever.

The independent bookstore sector has lost a lot of poor-quality stores, but the strong ones remain strong.

Books (thanks, especially to low cost ebook pricing) are insanely affordable – and you can read in any format you choose much more easily than before.

The simple fact is that it’s better to be an author today than at any point in the last two decades. Indeed, that’s probably underselling it. I think it’s easy to argue that this is the best ever time to be an author.”

Creating a Book Front Cover

Mt latest novel, Nebrodi Mountains: The Billionaire and the Mafia, recently reached the stage where the front cover design had to be finalised. I suggested to the publisher’s art department that it could be a picture of the real Nebrodi Mountains modified to make them mysterious, and I attached the following as a sample:

Nebrodi Mountains

The art department came back to me with the following. “I am attaching two cover design samples for your review. I thought that, rather than just have a lovely mountain landscape on the cover, that we shoot for something a bit more dramatic. I keyed off of the subtitle: “The Billionaire and the Mafia,” and selected a figure that might represent the mafia and a figure that could represent the American billionaire. I purposely made the “mafia” figure darker and more malevolent. Please let me know if either of these cover designs will work for you.”

and

To this, I responded, “I like the first one better that the second.  The brown colouring in the second looks unexciting, and the billionaire is too young. The first one has possibilities, if the man is a handsome, black billionaire, early 50’s.  His slightly superior attitude is good.  Could his suit be a blue blazer, his shirt be whiter, his tie dark red, and can you fit in a gold watch?  The mountains need to be largely green – no snow cover – and I think they should look real and take up more of the picture.

The artist responded with: “I am attaching a new jpg proof for your review.”

My comment on this was: ” We’re getting there! I think the man is too young, and I don’t think he would have a scar on his cheek.  Attached are some photos that fit my picture of the billionaire. I think all of them are copyright, but I can tell you who the copyright owner is, if you’re interested. The mountains in the background need to have more character (visible details) and look more like mountains than hills. (I sent him three sample pictures if black men.)

The artist responded: “Here’s a revised cover proof…

My comment was, “I understand that the orange colour scheme is thematic, but it doesn’t work for me. Could you do the mountains in natural green and the sky in natural shades of grey/white with threatening storm clouds and perhaps a stroke of lightening? With this change, the subtitle, The Billionaire and the Mafia, should probably be in black, same font as ‘Nebrodi Mountains’.

He responded: “Here’s the latest incarnation…”

And I said, “It’s excellent! I assume you’ll eliminate the watermark across the man’s face.”

So, that’s the cover.

Review: Victory at Sea

When I saw the press release of this book by Yale historian Paul Kennedy, I knew, as an ex-US Navy officer, that I had to get a copy. It makes for fascinating reading, particularly in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Paul Kennedy the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a New York Times bestseller. He has also written Grand Strategies in War and Peace, and Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. He s J Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

Bismark under Attack 1941

This history book includes a remarkable series of fifty-five paintings of warships by Ian Marshall who was a fellow and past president of the American Society of Marine Artists. The paintings are a valuable addition, bringing the text alive.

Written in five parts and three appendices, it begins with stage-setting background of the development of the six navies involved in WW II: USA, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. There is also a discussion of sea power in the sweep of history, and an overview of geographic and economic considerations. Kennedy argues, persuasively, that geography and economics favoured the United States, while both factors worked against the Axis alliance.

The next four parts cover the periods 1939-42 (the early years, which favoured the Axis); 1943 (the critical year); 1944-45 (triumph of the Allies); and Aftermath and Reflections. In these sections, Kennedy does not describe the sea battles in detail. Rather, he describes the situation, the strategies, the combatants, and the results materially and psychologically. Even without the real time detail, one has a feeling for what the battle was like.

The principle point which Kennedy is making in this book is that one the US decided to enter the war, the conclusion was inevitable principally because of the economic potential of the country. It had access to all the natural resources it needed; at the end of a major recession, the human resources were available; and the financial resources were made available by wealthy, patriotic individuals. Geography also favoured the US in the sense that none of the conflict came within its borders.

In the appendices, there are examples of American production of weapons. In 1945, the US had a cumulative total of eleven an a a half million tons of warships, and increase of nine million tons since 1941. In 1945, the US had considerably more warships than the rest of the world, combined. Similar gains were achieved in aircraft and tank production. Kennedy argues that this increase in productivity resulted in the US becoming the world leader with about 50% of the world’s GDP.

This book makes clear that, given the right resources and motivation, major changes in the world order are possible in a short time period. And it leaves me with a question: If NATO really wants to defeat Russia in Ukraine, if it gathers the necessary military hardware and if the West keeps its sanctions in place, will Russia become anything other than a weak, failed state?

Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Having never read any James Joyce, I decided I should start with something shorter, that Ulysses. I am disappointed, but not put off enough to abandon the idea of tackling Ulysses.

Joyce was born in 1882 into a middle class family in Dublin. He was educated at Catholic schools and universities, a brilliant student. In 1904 he met his future wife and they moved to mainland Europe. He published a book of poems, Chamber Music, and a short story collection Dubliners, before serially publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922; it’s publication in the UK and the US was prohibited because of its perceived obscenity until the mid 1930’s. In 1939, the next major work, Finnegan’s Wake, was published. He died Zurich in 1941 shortly after surgery for a perforated ulcer at the age of 58.

James Joyce

Portrait is set in Dublin in the late 1800’s and is narrated by an omniscient, neutral third person, except for some stream of conscious in the final chapter. It traces the experiences of its protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, from his childhood to his early 20’s. Stephen is a bright, perceptive individual, but he lacks self-confidence, and his relations with classmates are somewhat difficult. The themes in the novel are family: his father is a heavy drinker and an unreliable bread-winner. His mother is kind and loving but dedicated, uncritically, to the Catholic church. The church restricts Stephen’s desire for artistic freedom, and there is likewise a tension in his image of women: virginal purity vs prostitute. There is also tension in Stephen’s view of Ireland and its culture: loyalty to its homely comforts vs a ‘nation of clodhoppers’. Amidst all this conflict, Stephen searches for his own identity: priest vs artist. He chooses the later, leaving family, Dublin and the church behind. Joyce’s innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, internal monologue and description of a characters psychic state rather than his actual surroundings.

Joyce’s prose is certainly captivating; one never has a doubt of what is going on in Stephen’s mind, but, for me, sometimes it seems too detailed. I felt that there was to much of it, that it would be better to show rather than tell. Do we have to know exactly how he was feeling? Would not a hint now and then suffice? Let the reader pick up the thread.

Some of the scenes in the novel seemed superfluous or repetitious in their effect.

But my largest complaint about Portrait is that my edition had over fifty pages of footnotes, so that one had to continually flip back and forth. Some of the footnotes had to do with Dublin places or real Irish people, and might be skipped. But many others were translations of Irish word or Latin phrases, and were a necessary aid to comprehension. One has the impression of a novel set in a particular time and place, and that therefore its issues and messages may not be transferable. For me, this rules it out as a classic.

Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the Context of the Ukraine War

Ani Kokobobo has an article which was published on The Conversation website on 6 April 2022 which raises the question of reading the two Russian icons with the war in Ukraine in mind.

Ani Kokobobo is Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.

Ani Kokobobo

She says, “As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being cancelled around the world. 

With the Russian army perpetrating devastating violence in Ukraine – which includes includes the slaughter of civilians in Bucha – the discussion of what to do with Russian literature has naturally arisen.

I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.

You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.

Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”

Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theater where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theater in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.

Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov,” is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognize the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.

Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?

At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fueled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.

Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.

Would an author who, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment,” explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?

I hope that he would, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are pervasive, and many Russians accept them. Many Russians look away.

No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, “Hadji Murat,” which scrutinizes Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.

Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace,” is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.

Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.

After publishing “War and Peace,” Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” originally wasn’t published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish War. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.

“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.

In 1904, Tolstoy penned a public letter denouncing the Russo-Japanese War, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.

In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.

“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement.”

These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.

As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.

And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.

“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.””

Writing Sex Scenes

Sharon Short’s final segment on Point of View hasn’t been published yet, so let’s look at writing sex scenes. Jessica Martin has a piece in Writer’s Digest titled ‘How to Write a Sex Scene Like Nobody Is Watching’.

Jessica Martin is a lawyer by trade, a writer by choice, and a complete smart ass by all accounts. Based in the suburban wilds of Boston, Jess shares her life with a finance geek, a small sass-based human, and a pair of dogs named after Bond characters.

Jessica Martin

Ms Martin writes, “There are some key scenes in your typical rom-com that writers have to nail. Chief among them is the sex scene. But writing one can stir up all sorts of feelings: anxiety, excitement, a bone deep certainty that if you write a bad one, no one will ever let you live it down. It runs the gamut and while every writer has a different strategy, here’s mine.

The name of the game is distance.

First up physical space. To actually write a sex scene like nobody is watching it helps if nobody is actually watching. For me, this means leaving my house because although I have a perfectly good writing space, there’s a six-year-old beastie who likes to barge in and demand to know why caterpillars don’t eat meat. Or whether you can hear a fish fart under water. Kid, I have no idea how to answer that.

This house I speak of is also occupied by two scheming dogs who lie in wait until I’m in a writing groove. They drop their heads on my leg and drool until I have no choice but to submit to the world’s most devastating puppy dog eyes, bursting with longing that only translates into one thing: Hey human, go fetch me a snack, will you?

And then there’s the husband.

I hope this isn’t shocking to anyone here, but I’ve had sex with him. I don’t want to think about him when writing a sex scene, because I’m pretty sure that violates the sanctity of the marriage pact or something—I don’t know, it’s just weird.

In any event, I vacate the house when I need to write a scene that involves the words thrust, pant, or moan. During COVID, there weren’t a ton of options for non-germy solitude, so I wrote the majority of these scenes in the front seat of my car parked in a state forest. Wearing a ratty hoodie and sucking down tea from a thermos for warmth. Hey, I live in New England and the nights are chilly. You know what else the nights were like in that state forest? Decidedly, not private.

What I didn’t realize is that after the park shuts down for the day, it’s apparently a hotbed of illicit activity. As teens swarmed the woods armed with their flashlights and pilfered booze, they would sometimes comment on the weirdo sitting alone in her car and wondering if I was a NARC. So, I’d need to wait until they’d dispersed into the woods like horror movie cautionary tales before I could get down to the good stuff.

OK, so now I’m physically alone. Now I need to be mentally alone.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my boss, who casually mentioned he’d bought 50 copies(!) of my book for our entire legal team. I was incredibly touched but also momentarily panicked as I sputtered that it was a rom-com … and when the room went silent, I blurted out, “There’s a sex scene.”

As every eye in the room turned to regard me, a colleague asked, “What kind of sex scene we talking here?”

“A tasteful one,” I replied archly (or at least nonchalantly. Please let me be remembered as being calm and cool in that moment).

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it before, it was just that interaction finally drove home that someday, somewhere, my husband, parents, kid brother, my actual kid (when she graduates to books without pictures), friends, neighbors, coworkers, former classmates whose Instagram accounts I follow but otherwise wouldn’t recognize, my incredibly bendy yoga instructor and a whole host of others might one day pick up my book and wonder, SO THAT SEX SCENE, IS SHE DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?

While I freely admit to stealing snatches of conversation (especially insults, I love standing behind teenagers in lines), character traits I admire in my friends, and sometimes wholesale shenanigans from my free-wheeling law school days, I draw the line at digging into my own personal cache of sexcapades. Why? Frankly, because I’d like to look that subset of people in the eyes again. Call me a prude, but I like to have a bit of an air of mystery about me. That and I don’t want anyone thinking about my sex faces.

But I’ll peel back the curtain and allow you a peek into my process.

There I am, sitting alone in a car in a dark forest (OK, that sounds creepy, but bear with me) and I warm up by watching YouTube compilations of my favorite on-screen couples. You know the ones, set to angsty music where beloved characters eye each other across a room, a shared smile passing between them. Or maybe it’s that near brush of the lips or a finger tracing a bare collar bone, a shirt goes up and over the head. For me it’s less about what the characters are actually doing and more about that delicious moment of mutual (and completely consensual) commitment to the path of no return, no going back to being friends or enemies or indifferent strangers—it’s on.

Once I’m there, then I imagine my characters, their expressions, their voices, their sex faces (not mine, thank you very much) and what the timbre of their sex scene is. Is it slightly humorous, two people fumbling around knocking stuff over in their jubilant haste to get to one another? Is it full of murmured teasing as one character deliberately seduces the other? Is it rushed but somehow decadent because it’s going down somewhere where any moment our lovers could be discovered?

That’s the feel part.

Then comes the mechanics. I cannot remember where this nugget of wisdom originated, but someone once told me that sex scenes are like fight scenes. Watch the hands. I love this, because it makes me go back and smooth out the scene once I’ve finished with the heady feeling part to make sure it all syncs up. For example, if his pants were carelessly discarded like caution to the wind on the floor a moment ago, as he slides up her body, his hands worshipfully tracing the topography of her hips, then he shouldn’t be reaching for protection in his pocket, right? It has to be in the bedside table or if they’re outside, maybe she’s the resourceful one who still has pants on and whips out the foil packet with a triumphant cry? Details count.

Once I’ve nailed the feeling and true up the details, I break the veil of solitude, I leave the deep dark woods (I’m sure you psych majors are having a field day). I slip back into being a lawyer, a wife, a mother, that person who almost always uses a turn signal when changing lanes. I send the sex scene to my beta readers, then my agent and my editor. I’ll ask them, “This isn’t gross, right?” and that’s usually all I need to feel confident that it’s there.

At least until someone tells me they bought fifty copies of it and they’re giving it to all my coworkers.”

Point of View: How Close?

This is the second in a three part series written by Sharon Short for Writer’s Digest.

Sharon says, “Just how “into” your narrator’s head and heart do you want your readers to be? Do you want them to feel emotionally embedded with your narrator(s)? Or observe your characters’ experiences from afar? What emotional distance (close, far, or a mix) should you strike to achieve the best point of view for your story, novel, or memoir?

The answer, of course, depends on the type of story you’re telling as well as the experience you want your readers to have.

Luckily, you don’t need to know the answer before you begin writing—though it’s fine if you do. Somewhere in the process of drafting and revising, you’ll need to figure out the emotional distance that’s right for your story’s point of view (POV)—and your readers.

Deep POV—or Not?

A common pearl of wisdom is first person is more personal and immediate than third or omniscient—after all, the narrator is telling their story directly to the reader.

Consider this example:

I had to stay late for work, and as I was driving home, I wondered whether mac ’n’ cheese from a box would be OK for dinner, and I hoped that tonight I could finally get my 12-year-old daughter, Stacy, to open up to me. I was distracted and didn’t notice the pickup truck slowing down in front of me until it was too late and I rear-ended it.

Hmm. This feels a bit flat and distant, doesn’t it? The use of linking verbs (“was”), past progressive tense (“was driving”), and verbs that describe emotional and mental processes (“wondered,” “hoped,” also known as filter words) all hold the reader at bay.

Revise into what’s often called “deep POV” with active verbs and emotions to pull your readers into your narrator’s head and heart:

At first, I relaxed as I drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe I could get Stacy to help me—she always opens up when we’re doing a task together. I’d rather hear her prattle on about seventh-grade drama than worry about the water heater repair bill … Boom! Oh, crap. I hit the back of the pickup truck in front of me. If only I could stay focused on what’s right in front of me—whether ledgers or red brake lights.

Same information and then some—we know more about the narrator’s relationship with her daughter and financial worries, get a sense of her personality, and are right there with her when she rear-ends the truck.

This works just as well with third person:

At first, Donna relaxed as she drove home; traffic was light, an unexpected boon of working late on another set of expense ledgers. But that also meant dinner would be late—again. Would everyone be OK with mac ’n’ cheese—again? Maybe she could get Stacy’s help—the kid always opened up when they did a task together—and Donna would rather hear her daughter prattle on about seventh-grade drama than …

Notice how this deep POV and third person combination feels more distant than the deep POV and first person combination, but a lot closer than the initial example of first person.

But what if you want the reader to feel distant from Donna? Perhaps she’s a stiff, uptight character who doesn’t let anyone easily into her feelings. That’s fine—but it doesn’t mean you need to revert to verbs and filter words that describe, rather than show, experience. A less distracting way to create distance is to use active verbs, eliminate immediate thoughts and feelings, and stick to the facts of the narrator’s situation:

Reviewing another set of expense ledgers meant I left work late, but by then, traffic was light. Dinner would be late. Mac ’n’ cheese would be sufficient. Stacy could help make it. That would mean listening to the kid talk about seventh-grade drama. Suddenly, I crashed into the back of the pickup truck in front of me …

Every writer I know finds that being a writer is an emotional experience. Oh, we all try to be practical when talking about our experiences in public—focusing on craft techniques or business practices.

But when talking with trusted writer friends, we admit writing is an emotional endeavor—both as we create, and as we put our work out into the world.

While creating, you might get so into your work that the characters and situations become real. I’ve both burst out crying while writing a particularly moving scene and laughed aloud at my characters’ hijinks. (I’ve had family members catch me in such moments and ask, with some worry, for reassurance that I do know I’ve made up these characters and their situations. Well, sure. But, that’s beside the point. They feel real to us!)

That’s a great kind of emotional closeness to your work. It’s part of the joy of creation, after all, and though experiencing this as you write won’t ensure that every reader will feel the same way, it surely shows you’re on the path to creating something that is visceral and authentic.

On the other hand, when it’s time to revise, emotional distance becomes your ally. That hilarious scene that had you in stitches as you wrote it? If it’s slowing the pace of your story, it may need to be shortened—or even cut altogether. (But save it in a different file! Outtakes can be bonus material for readers in the future, or worked into new pieces.)

Then, dear writer friend, there’s the emotion of putting our work out into the world—perhaps sharing it with a trusted writer group, or submitting to agents or editors, or having it published for readers to enjoy (or, alas, sometimes not.)

Depending on our personalities and the reactions our work receives, emotions can run the gamut from joy and excitement (woo hoo, I have a request for my writing or my writing group loves my new scene!), to despair (I’ll never find a home for this story), to anger (how could a reviewer or writing group member say that about my work?).

Let yourself process all of those emotions but discipline yourself to hold back on expressing them. (Well, except if you have great news. That you can shout from the rooftops!)

Remember that setbacks are temporary. Not every piece of writing will please every reader; you’re not writing to please everyone anyway. Remind yourself that if you receive a pass on your work that it’s the work that’s being rejected—not you.”