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.

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.”

Point of View Myths 1

Sharon Short, a Writer’s Digest columnist has three pieces on Point of View (POV). Her first is choosing the right point of view for your story.

Sharon Short is the author of 12 published novels, most recently in her Kinship Historical Mystery series, which she writes under her pen name Jess Montgomery. The Hollows is the most recent title in the series, published by Minotaur Books and inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925. Set in the Appalachian region, the series draws on themes of workers’ rights and women’s roles, and has garnered several awards.

Sharon Short

“POV is the principle that pulls together every other element of your prose. You might have a compelling premise, interesting characters, beautiful writing, and great pace. But if the POV is not right, the reader will sense something is off as if it’s ice cream curdling in the bowl.

Intimidating? Yes. But this and the next two “Level Up” columns will focus on POV: busting myths, exploring emotional distance, and examining the element of time for first, third-limited, third-multiple, or omniscient POVs. (Though it’s often used in advice columns such as this, second is rarely used in prose, so I’m setting it aside.) My hope is that the three columns will give you a mini POV tool kit to apply to your project.

POV Myths—Busted!

First-person POV is the easiest!

In first-person POV, the weight of the entire piece rests in the voice of the narrator—for 300 pages or longer for book-length works! Don’t do yourself, or your work, the disservice of thinking of first POV as easy simply because of the “I” pronoun. Each POV has its own challenges. And sustaining a distinctive, strong voice for the narrator’s POV for the entire work is the challenge in first. Of course, if done well, this is also the charm of first.

But … First-person POV is simply the narrator telling the story!

No, you, as the writer are always the invisible narrator in any work of prose—even first-person POV. You are always in control of the story. In first-person POV, you allow one character (at a time—even working in first, you can still have multiple narrators) to narrate the story in his, her, or their voice.

Well, first is the only way to use a deep POV.

It may seem easiest to have a deep POV (sharing of thoughts, emotions, reactions) in first, but the drawback of that seeming simplicity is the temptation to overshare. Or to share in a way that feels either false or overwrought. And you can certainly have deep POV in third as well. (More on deep POV in the upcoming column on emotional distance.)

That’s all right. Third-person POV is more high concept anyway!

Every novel, story, memoir, or essay must be driven by a guiding concept—the heart of the piece. High concept simply means the premise of the piece can be described succinctly (in a few sentences) in a way that intrigues and incents readers to want to read the full work. Fulfilling that promise depends on getting all the elements just right—including POV. Of course, examples of high concept third-person POV novels abound, but high concept first-person POV novel examples include The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) or The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or the bestselling thriller The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. It’s hard to imagine those first-person POV examples working as well in third person.

You can only have multiple POVs in third person, though.

Again, that depends on the story. Hank Phillippi Ryan’s novel Her Perfect Life alternates between third-person limited and first-person POVs. This works because the main character (third-person limited POV) needs to keep her distance from the public, while the first-person POV character, who works for the main character, has many opinions that we might have—until we get to know the main character. In Heather Webber’s South of the Buttonwood Tree, two first-person POV characters trade off narration of the story—and third-person POV anecdotes are interspersed throughout. By the end, the narrative lines all braid together to create a complete story tapestry.

No one writes omniscient anymore, and besides, isn’t it the same as head hopping?

Omniscient differs from multiple POV in that the latter strictly relegates each POV to a section or chapter. And it differs from head hopping—the confusing effect of jumping from one character’s thought to the next character’s thought—by switching perspectives based on which character’s reaction is the most important in a given moment. Usually, that also means that we stay in one character’s POV for a sentence or paragraph, rather than hopping from one character’s head to the next in the same sentence. An excellent example of omniscient POV mastery is Louise Penny, who uses this POV in her Chief Inspector Gamache novels.

Changing POV is as simple as changing pronouns.

This is a common myth—that if somehow first-person POV isn’t working, then switching to third-person POV is as simple as replacing all the “I’s” with “She, he, they,” or a name. But it’s not that simple. Proper POV depends so much on emotional distance and time—more on those elements in the next two columns.

What’s Your POV, Dear Writer?

Now, take a moment and consider your POV about your own work—and your writing life.

What are the myths you might have given into?

  • This is my first novel—so it has to be in first-person POV.
  • I’ve never written in third POV before because it feels too hard. (Or similar fear for first or omniscient POVs.)
  • I’m used to this particular POV, so I’d better stick to it.

Part of the joy (and yes, pain, but hopefully more joy than pain!) of any creative endeavor is experimenting and pushing yourself to grow.

If you’ve always written in first-person POV, try a short story or flash fiction in third. Or if you’ve always written in third, try writing an essay in first.”

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”

Sex in Literature?

There is an article in Literature News dated 18 December 2020, written by an anonymous subscriber, which struck me as being quite indicative of the times. The article is subtitled: ‘Yes, it used to be classic but now it’s mostly crass!’

I have edited the article which appears below:

“Modern literature in English, the books published after 2010, mostly, have been popular because of many factors that have affected the sensibilities, choices, preferences and ideals of the masses. However, for a certain group of readers, increasing obscenity in casual literature is also a reason that has increased their interest in literature, frequency in buying and reading books and also took them away from what we can call sensible and meaningful literature. Well, all of it, most of the times, comes down to the description of sexual and intimate moments in literary work. For example, works like Fifty Shades of Grey have taken it too far, when we talk about the international literary horizon.

“I want to f*** your mouth, Anastasia, and I will soon,” his voice is hoarse, raw, his breathing more disjointed.”

This comes from E. L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the extract below may be said to be something more:

“Keep still,” he orders, his voice soft but urgent, and slowly he inserts his thumb inside me, rotating it around and around, stroking the front wall of my v*****. The effect is mind-blowing—all my energy concentrating on this one small space inside my body. I moan.”

So, anyone can read, the intimate moments have become intense (in the literature of the day) and their descriptions have become raw, direct and even more than what could actually be. And this may be called a sudden outburst because mainstream literature has been filled with such works by the novelists who have taken it to the next level while describing the sexual scenes. Authors have begun providing a special set of readers with what cannot be exhibited even in the inline content platforms.

“He kissed my nipples. He moved up and kissed my collarbone. He kissed my chin and then my lips for several minutes. He tugged at my panties. My heart beat fast. Was I really going to get fully naked in front of a man?”

There are many new authors who are coming up with even ‘better’ versions, even more explicit details. It makes things aroused for a moment or two, an hour or two and may meet the sexual fantasies of readers (especially teenagers and youths for whom things are all new). However, in this process, what we forget is ‘fiction’ and the target readers of these authors seldom judge such books on merits. Problem for none and a win-win situation for the novelists.

In those days, when the authors like Lawrence and Hardy tried to portray sexual actions on the pages of their novel, things were very different and everything was almost ‘beautiful. Things were suggestive, narrated wonderfully and also felt good to read. This may be coming out of my bias for classics and against the modern nonsense which is served in the name of realism. However, you can realise more if you read these lines by Lawrence which detail a scene of love-making between Paul and Miriam in Sons and Lovers:

“She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.”

And you can feel the sentiments in the extract below but you cannot find that obscenity:

“And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her.”

Now, the readers may have their say on what they want to enjoy and to which extent. There is nothing that I would ask them to leave or accept. However, as a critical thinker, I find modern description of love-making rather elaborated to the naughty sides of our conscious. It is, however and somehow, doing great with the time.”

I agree with the sentiments of the writer. For me, literary fiction (as distinct from generic fiction) should employ the imagination of the reader. When characters engage in love-making, it is enough to set the scene and concentrate on revealing the emotions of the couple. This defines their relationship. ‘Mechanical’ details of the interaction, while possibly of peripheral interest to the reader, distract from an understanding of the relationship.

Writing Backstory

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website written by Jenna Kernan in which she says, “How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough?”

Jenna Kernan

‘Bestselling author Jenna Kernan writes gripping domestic thrillers. Her 2021 release, A Killer’s Daughter, won the bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards in the popular fiction category and her next release, The Adoption, arrives in May 2022 and features a couple whose adoption goes from blissful to terrifying when a dark secret and menacing stranger threaten the baby.’

Ms Kernan says, “My upcoming domestic thriller, The Adoption, has a complicated backstory. That got me thinking how best to weave all those interesting, life-changing events from the past into the book. These experiences proved pivotal in the thriller, but how to reveal the past for the biggest punch in the present?

1. Don’t relate more than the briefest backstory in the first chapter because you need to create momentum, and backstory will stop progress dead. Too much too early can halt the main plot. Also, the reader won’t care about all those details until you’ve established empathy for and curiosity about your protagonist.

2. Do avoid dropping a block of backstory as introspection, where the protagonist is deep in thought. Consider dribbling in backstory, drop-by-drop, like a drip coffee maker. I know of one popular author who writes out the entire traumatic experience of each protagonist in real time, including dialogue. After she has this all-important, pivotal, life-shaping, worldview-shifting scene, she breaks it into tiny pieces and inserts it as internal thought at critical times in the first half of the story. It works and keeps the narrative moving. So, consider breaking up the flashback and weaving it into several scenes for greater impact.

3. Don’t forget that introspection is only one way to introduce backstory. Other options are dialogue and action.

4. Do use actions to present core beliefs forged in the past. Does your character repeatedly check the front door lock as they recall a traumatic experience with a home invasion?

5. Don’t skimp on the use of discourse to reveal backstory. A conversation or argument is an interesting way to reveal a character’s past. Dialogue amps up the conflict more effectively than a slap. Who can forget the plot shifting backstory dialogue, “Luke I am your father?”

6. Do show a character holds a certain mistaken core belief because of a past trauma or life-shaping event. Such backstory details can make irrational actions believable. In fact, if you want a character to adopt a particular conviction, creating the right past experience is critical. Your characters come to situations holding certain core beliefs and assumptions and will respond accordingly. A person attacked by a strange dog might assume all big dogs are dangerous unless additional life-experiences oppose this belief and cause the character to change, for example, by meeting several lovely, gentle big dogs.

7. Don’t make the backstory more compelling than the forward story. The backstory creates the character’s worldview, their belief system, and the mistaken belief which will change as they experience their journey. But the past isn’t the story, or it should be told in real time.

8. Do consider using a flashback for a longer backstory incident which relates to the forward narrative. Some writers avoid flashbacks, others use them to great effect.

9. Don’t create details which do not affect the narrative or aren’t needed to understand the story or your protagonist’s motivation and beliefs. Remember, not everything which happened in a protagonist’s past applies to the main plot. If there is no dog in your story, you don’t need to have the protagonist mention he hates them unless this is the reason for the fight with his dog-loving girlfriend.

10. Do relate backstory naturally, avoiding contrived reveals. You know, those scenes when one character explains something which another character already knows for the sole purpose of disclosing this information to the reader. “Remember when we were attacked by that bear, and it tore your arm off?” The reader might be thinking, “Oh, so that’s how that arm came off!” and then, “Wait a minute, that other character should definitely know that without being reminded.” Two characters talking about stuff they clearly already know is an awkward way to deliver backstory, so avoid it when possible.

11. Don’t let anyone tell you backstory shouldn’t be in your story. It might well be the most important part of your characterization.

12. Just do be conscientious about how, where, and why you include backstory.

This all very good advice. Backstory can be vital to a vibrant story, if just enough is revealed. Too much becomes a distraction. I should add that there is another way to tell backstory apart from introspection, dialogue and action. It can also be told through research on the Internet or the media.

New Novel: Grand Uncle Bertie

My tenth novel “Grand Uncle Bertie” has just been published by Austin Macauley.

The synopsis of the novel is: Granduncle Bertie is the story of a frightened but determined man’s struggles to live a life that has value for him and others in the face of death.  It is set in contemporary Wandsworth, London.

Sarah, a gay, free-spirited artist in her late twenties, accepts the assignment from her granduncle, Bertie Smithson, to write his memoir.

In her first interview, Sarah discovers that Bertie has a morbid premonition of his own death brought about by his father’s remonstrations against God during his fatal illness.  During his mother’s funeral, Bertie reveals his own agnosticism, and his brother’s partner tells him that the fear of death can be overcome by a combination of faith, a deeply satisfying vocation, and meaningful family relationships.  Bertie has none of these.  With the death of his mother, Bertie must also become the patriarch of the family.

Bertie and his wife, Jo, move into his parents larger, memory-filled home.  During a holiday in Seaford, Bertie is shocked by the sudden death of a close relative.  This reinforces his own fears that his life may be cut short.  Bertie turns to his Catholic wife, Jo, for solace but Jo tells him that for his faith to be real, he must develop it himself.

Later, Bertie is shocked to discover that Jo had an affair with another man.  He confronts Jo who confesses her ‘dreadful sin’ in agony.  Bertie weighs the alternatives and forgives her.

Confronted with a series of family misadventures, including an incipient affair, theft, and selfishness, Bertie learns that a patriarch must be a disciplinarian as well as a wise leader.

Bertie is unable to relieve his younger brother Jason’s depression. When Jason commits suicide, Bertie fails to understand Jason’s death.

Sarah recalls Heather, Bertie’s granddaughter, who dies of leukaemia in spite of a stem cell transplant. Bertie wishes he could have given up his life to save her.

There is an argument between Bertie and Jo about whether their youngest, Elizabeth, should have an abortion as a result of a failed liaison, Bertie accompanies his daughter to the clinic.

In chance meetings with the ‘Professor’, a black mystic-philosopher, Bertie is introduced to the idea of a ‘fourth dimension’, a spiritual universe which parallels the matter-space universe.

Later, Bertie, in his struggle to find faith, discovers the Jewish concept of Emunah, a commitment to God. In debates with a Catholic priest, he acknowledges the role of the devil in human tragedies. 

Determined to start a meaningful second career as a writer of children’s books, Bertie overcomes obstacles and enjoys success with Sarah as a writer-artist team.  He learns that Sarah is gay.  Despite her fears, Bertie accepts her.

 Bertie discovers Hindu concepts of an infinite universe. He tries to reconcile the events of his life, concluding that life comes from God in the form of a spirit.

Enrolling on the Alpha Course, Bertie experiences awareness, completeness and asylum that never leaves him.  With Jo, he discovers the delight of teaching year four Sunday school.  He learns that he has an incurable brain cancer and dies in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends.

When I first drafted Granduncle Bertie, the narrator was the protagonist, and one literary agent told me that the story lacked tension. In order to increase the temperature of the narration, I re-wrote it to make Sarah, a young woman with a different view of life the co-narrator. This allows for disagreements and different interpretations of events.

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.