Sex

I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

after thirty-five years of marriage

source

Techno Fail: Missing FAQ

I had a very long and detailed FAQ page at one point not so long ago, but as sometimes happens with a weblog this old and cantankerous, it seems to have crawled away to die in a hidey-hole somewhere.

Before you ask: yes, I have backups. But there are technological complications with plugins you really don’t care to hear about. The bottom line: in time I should be able to reconstruct most of the faq page — I did a little of that today. But it also occurs to me that I get a lot of questions and I haven’t added any to the faq page in yonks, as my Brit friends might say. Thus: if you have a moment to look at the sadly denuded FAQ Page, please take a minute to send a note with a question you’d like to see included. Or that you once saw here, but is now missing.

 

Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.
Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that. 

My side, your side: Fan fiction and The Gilded Hour

An email from an unhappy — and proactive reader.

Ms Donati, You have created a wonderful but unfinished story with very lovely and interesting people. Since you have written that you like to leave unanswered questions at the end of your books I will not be able to read your future works of art. I read– almost uninterrupted —” The Guilded [sic] Hour” and could not believe you would give up on the story without having an ending.—I know you think there was one—but I beg to differ. I have read the blog about this story—-and your answers to the comments were not satisfactory. I am writing my own ending to your story with each story line having a happy or unhappy closure and will not need to read any sequels. Thank you for your lovely start —now to start on my own end of the story lines.

My reply:

Ms Williams —  I take it as a compliment that you feel so strongly about the story and the characters. You are, of course, welcome to do as you please, as long as you don’t attempt to publish what you create. I wish you best of luck with it.


Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas Annotated pages from David Foster Wallace’s copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas Annotated pages from David Foster Wallace’s copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I didn’t have to think very long about how to reply to this reader, and I meant what I said: she is free to write whatever she likes and resolve storylines to her satisfaction, as long as she doesn’t publish what she writes. It’s not in me to be angry or even irritated by this. I’m a little unclear on what she thought she might accomplish with her letter. Is she hoping I’ll change my ways? Ask her to collaborate in writing the sequel? Tell her I want to see what she writes? Maybe she’s just hopping mad and needs to vent in my general direction.

To be really clear: I have no problem with fan fiction. You have to really love and care about the world I created and the people in the world to go to this kind of trouble, and I really do see that as a great compliment. But I can’t and won’t read whatever she — or anyone– might write. The risk is that if I read fanfic, I’ll be accused of stealing ideas and sued.  Am I missing out on something? Impossible to know. Ms Williams is missing out on whatever I come up with in the sequel, which is her right. I can certainly  carry on without reading her endings to my stories.

So, I thank Ms. Williams for the compliment, but I can’t interact with her at all about this. 

I’d be curious what people think about this subject in general — not specifically the email from  Ms. Williams, but her need to resolve the story to her own satisfaction and timeline. 

 

Ms Middleton poses a few questions

Not every book is for every reader. There are many novels out there that don’t work for me, even well-written novels that are broadly praised. And yet, here I am responding to an email from someone who is very dissatisfied with The Gilded Hour

I have questions about The Gilded Hour.  I just finished reading it and, of course, I’m confused by the ending.  Why was the murder plot story not finished?

Also, I was confused as the story is supposed to take place in 1883 but, there is mention of cabs, hotels, and traffic.  Really?  In 1883?  The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel didn’t even open in NYC until 1893.  I felt like the setting kept jumping back and forth in-time and I had a hard time believing it was really 1883 since there was constant mention of “taking a cab”, “staying at the hotel” and “dealing with traffic.”  I’m curious as to why these were part of the setting if it was supposed to be 1883.  Any answers?

Also, I’ve never written to an author before, but, The Gilded Hour was very confusing for me since it jumped around in-time.  I’m looking forward to your explanations since you are the author.  

Kristi

Rather than talk about the fact that the murders will be resolved in the sequel (as I did here if my regular readers want to be reminded), let me address historical accuracy.

Pictures may speak louder than words, but heck, I’ll supply both of them.

Gilsey House Hotel

Manhattan was a very crowded place in the 19th century.

The actress Jenny Lind  arrived to perform at Castle Garden (then a performance space) on September 11, 1850.   30,000 people met her at the dock and another  20,000 lined the streets to her hotel.  You can read about this in more detail at the New York Times.

But then you could just go to one of the many city guides such as The City of New York: A Complete Guide, published in 1876, and read the ads for the city’s many hotels. You can read this online; the list of hotels starts on page 65

The Gilsey House hotel, mentioned in The Gilded Hour  opened for business in 1871, and is still standing, and is still a hotel.  Daytonian in Manhattan — a blog dedicated to New York city history — has a great post about the Windsor Hotel, which was standing and in business in 1883. In general I’d recommend Daytonian in Manhattan when you’re wondering about history.

omnibus-horses-in-winter-stieglitzIn 1883 traffic was a major problem. It was worse, in many ways, because thousands of horses pulling wagons of all kinds meant manure, and no easy way to get rid of it. The photo to the right I like especially because I think it makes it clear what it was like to be on the street in the winter. It’s a Steiglitz photo. 

There were train tracks everywhere, and accidents were common.  You can read about one in heavy traffic in 1874 here. There were elevated trains, more accidents. And there were cabs. Such as this line of handsome cabs waiting for customers on the north side of Union Square. That arm you see in the background is from the Statue of Liberty. While they were fundraising to build the pedestal in the bay, they put the arm in Union Square Park and charged people to climb to the top.

All of the images at the end of this post date from between 1880 and 1890. You’ll note the large number of small horse drawn carriages — cabs. Lots of them. 

Ms. Middleton, I hope I have resolved your confusion. There’s more information about the historical aspects of The Gilded Hour on the novel’s webpage, in case more questions occur to you.

Union Square, cab line
Union Square, cab line

madison-square-1893 sixth-ave-shoppers washington market

Lower East Side
Union Square
Union Square
Winter traffic 1887
Winter traffic 1887

Fictional Hiccups, as I use them

This post is 2 years old.

Over on the forum there was an interesting question from CBigbee, which I answered there, but am duplicating here because links aren’t showing up over there properly.

The question:

First, I read the Wilderness series a few years back.  When I completed the final book I thought that I could never read another book again….So sad to see it end.  When I started Gilded Hour it took me a while to catch on to the connections back to Wilderness, and I was delighted! My burning (& odd) question is about hiccups.  I remember them from Wilderness.  Please help me understand what those are.  Do they sound like an actual hiccup, as in when one has the hiccups?  Because that doesn’t seem to work for me.  Is it a gasp?  What are those hiccups?  You are a brilliant writer and your novels complete me!

My answer:

Hi CBigbee —

First, thanks for stopping by.

When I use ‘hiccup’ metaphorically I’m thinking of the way people pull in a short breath in a noisy way. It’s heard a lot in European languages (Scandinavians tend to think of it as a feature of their languages alone, but it’s heard in languages across the world). You’ll hear it a lot of Scots English and less in American English, where you’ll most likely hear it as a sound of surprise.

Technically, in linguistics, this is called ingressive phonation. That sounds weird, but once you hear it you’ll know what I’m talking about. And thanks to the magic of the internet, you can hear it, right now, if you care to.

Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b
Eklund JIPA 2008 Figure 7b

There’s an article on Wikipedia with a pretty good description of an inhaled affirmative, including a sound file. There is also a very technical website by Robert Eklund, here. Probably most useful from Eklund’s site is this sound file (and if you’re really interested, the corresponding spectogram, seen here.[1.This is phonetics, a branch of linguistics. Phoneticians (Robert Eklund, for example) study  the production of human speech sounds.] You will have to turn the sound on your computer way up and listen to it more than once, but the speaker of Scots English starts out the short sentence with what I have called a ‘hiccup’ sound to describe this phenomenon when I’m writing fiction.

See what happens when you hit my linguistics button? I miss teaching.