Thursday, February 12, 2015


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Happy almost Valentines Day. And for some people, you know what that means:

Yup. The movie of Fifty Shades opens. (This Red will not be attending.)  And have you seen the Dave Barry column about the books? I think Deborah Crombie sent it to me...along with many other pals! My favorite lines are:

“If Jane Austen (another bestselling female British author) came back to life and read this book, she would kill herself.”


     “When so many women get so emotionally involved in a badly written, comically unrealistic porno yarn, what does this tell us? That women are basically insane? Yes. I mean no! No. Of course it does not tell us that.”

But neither the fictional Anastasia nor the fabulous Dave (love him!) is here today. We are so lucky to have a terrific thriller writer, the fabulously talented Edgar-nominated Michael Sears who, if Jane Austen came back to life and read his books—would be delighted.

His brand new LONG WAY DOWN is a smart, fast-paced, thoughtful thriller, which I devoured.  (He’s coming to Boston next Tuesday, and I am interviewing him at Brookline Booksmith at 7. Y’all come.)

And here’s why he’s especially perfect for today. Like Dave, he has a problem with sex scenes, too.

Why I No Longer Write Sex Scenes or How to Survive a Workshop
         by Michael Sears

My first three books were written entirely, or almost so, in a workshop.  It was a very good workshop, led by NYT bestselling author, Jennifer Belle.  When I acknowledge my debt to “my Muses,” these are the people I am talking about.  I have heard horror stories of workshops, and easily admit that even this one would not suit all tastes, but it worked for me.  The Muses input on character, dialogue, and voice will always be with me.  They were encouraging when I did well, and honest when I needed to hear disagreeable truths.  I owe them a lot.

That doesn’t say that the group was infallible.  I had to keep myself armored with the idea that only I knew what my book was about – even when I changed it.  Jenny allowed differences of opinion.  Not every idea presented was exactly what my scene needed.  But sometimes the discussion opened up exciting new avenues to explore.

Workshops need to be constructive and instructive.  They need not be kind, but they must not be mean.  But the writer who walks into any workshop with the most precious, and fragile creation held clutched to his or her breast, feeling both terrified to reveal the innermost and yet expectant of adulation, is in for BIG trouble. You can’t help bringing a bit of that in with you each week, but, heck, it’s just words on paper. Check your ego at the door.  You’re there to work.   If the group doesn’t like the words you brought them, you can always write different ones.  Keep a file titled “What They Hated Most” and go back and look through it every six months or so.  Odds are, you’ll find they were right and it won’t hurt a bit to admit it.  If you still disagree, bring it back in.  They might like it second time around.

The really great thing about a workshop is that you will quickly discover your strengths.  That is much more valuable than beating yourself up over your weaknesses.  If the group is not telling you what you’ve done well, they’re not doing their part.  It’s easier to point out the klunker sentence than it is to recognize the truth in a character’s emotional response, but that’s what you should expect from a good workshop.  If you’re not getting it, move on.

All of which brings me to sex scenes.  I don’t know why my sex scenes give women the creeps.  I think they’re funny.  I don’t think I’m writing something for Letters to Penthouse, but somehow that’s what comes across.  Maybe I need wider experience, but having been happily married for over thirty-five years, and with every intention of keeping things that way, I will forego the research.  So, I quit.  I will place the characters involved in the proper environment, complete with all their desires and dreams, and allow the reader to fill in all the naughty bits.  Or as one of the Muses said to me on this subject, “Even you can write a space break.”

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So Reds? How about you? Do you read them? Do you write them?  Don't tell us any of that "only if it advances  the story" stuff. Or--would you rather talk about workshops? And are you going to see "the movie"?


Michael Sears is the author of the Jason Stafford and the Kid series.  His first book, BLACK FRIDAYS, was nominated for five awards, winning the Shamus, for Best First Novel.  LONG WAY DOWN, the third in the series, is now out from G.P. Putnam.

Two years in a federal prison has changed Jason Stafford, is still changing him, but one thing it has taught him is how to detect a lie.  He doesn’t think that Philip Haley is lying.  An engineer on the verge of a biofuel breakthrough, Haley has been indicted for insider trading on his own company, and Stafford believes him when he say he’s been set up.  Haley does indeed have enemies.  He is not a nice man.  Doesn’t make him a criminal.
It does make him dangerous to be around, however.  The deeper Stafford investigates the more secrets he starts to uncover – secrets people would kill for.  And that’s exactly what happens.  Soon it is Stafford himself who is under attack and, worse, his family – his fiancĂ©e, his young son – and he is a fugitive, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of both the killers and the law.


Joan Emerson said...

Didn't read the book, not seeing the film. "Long Way Down" is sitting somewhere in my teetering to-be-read pile . . . my time will be much better spent digging it out to read.

Mark Baker said...

No desire to read the book. No desire to see the movie. I'll stick with great writers, like those who post here as members or guests.

Much of that is because I skip over sex scenes as much as possible, even if they advance the story. Truly don't need them.

And it sounds like you found a great workshop, Michael. Plus you had the right attitude about what you could and couldn't get from it.

Congrats on the new novel.

Ellen Kozak said...

I felt no need to read (and feel less need to see) "Fifty Shades of Gray" because as a teenager, I read "The Story of O," and when I picked up "Gray"-- briefly-- in a bookstore and thumbed through it, I thought, "This has already been done."

When I wrote my science fiction novels, the publisher wanted sexandviolence. I found the only way I could deliver sexandviolence was to make the books funny, so they are rife with puns and literary allusions. As for the violence part, gratuitous violence didn't/doesn't work for me, so the overarching themes of the books tend to be justice, feminism and environmentalism to justify it. (I wrote with some of my friends in mind as readers, so the sex had to be fun, and often funny, and the violence had to be righteous.)

That said, I was much more explicit in the first book (although one of my friends was delighted that I wrote the sex scenes from the woman's point of view-- apparently that wasn't all that prevalent 30 years ago). By the time I finished the third book, I had learned to say nothing specific but leave my readers (I had friends who dropped by to read the books in progress)fanning themselves.e

It is a learned skill. It has been three decades since I wrote all that sexandviolence. I don't know if I could still do it. I'm no longer writing to order, and what I'm writing doesn't seem to require sexandviolence, but I suppose that if someone were waving enough money at me, I could do it again. I'd just rather not.

Hallie Ephron said...

Oh, Michael, this is terrific! I so agree with your advice on workshops and critique groups, and especially: Keep a file titled “What They Hated Most.” It's often the stuff I'm most attached to and then, in the light of days later, makes me cringe.

And Bravo! for nixing the explicit sex. I do think it's about genre, but as you say, best to play to your strengths (and your readers biases).

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Okay, I'll admit it. I skip those parts. As for writing them--I stick with sexual tension. I dod remember reading Marjorie Morningstar when I was about 10--could that be? Hoping it was racy. If I remember, it wasn't. I sneaked it from my parents bookshelves. They must have howled with laughter.

I'm not even tempted to write it sex scenes. And if I did, I bet it would be funny. Whether it was intentional or not.

So sad to hear about the death of Bob SImon. What an icon.

Karen in Ohio said...

While I'm no prude by any stretch of the imagination, I'm really not interested in reading Fifty Shades. Largely because of the pathetic writing, as quoted by lots of reviewers. And Dave Barry, of course, whose take on that lightweight tome (as opposed to weighty) is hilarious.

I do enjoy a good love scene, but when it gets to the graphic Part A inserted into Part B, I start yawning. Drawing a veil over the skin on skin parts is more fun for me, and I presume, for the characters, as well. A little privacy never hurt anyone.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Hallie, you scooped my comment! That's my favorite advice of the day too--a file of what they hated most. It's completely amazing how time changes your perspective on your darling words.

Thanks for this lovely essay Michael--love your perspective on writing sex scenes!

Kay said...

Not reading the book. Not watching the movie.

However, I have read Michael's first book, BLACK FRIDAYS and enjoyed it immensely. Now that #3 is out, I need to hunt up #2 and then move along.

Mary Sutton said...

Also didn't read the books. Not watching the movie. Heard somewhere that both actors wish they hadn't done it, so why bother?

Sex scenes don't bother me as a reader, but I do tend to skim, watching for more emotion. Just not my thing.

I took a scene writing workshop once and challenged myself to write a real sex scene (not a "close the door"). To my shock, the instructor told me it was a great scene. But I have no reason to write one in anything I'm writing now. I never say "never," but I can't see it.

As to workshops, I feel the same. Last Sunday, my critique partners said, "We really don't like your main character much today," but then they articulated WHY and helped me figure out how to solve the problem. then they pointed out where things were really good. That's a good group.

Cyndi Pauwels said...

I prefer my written violence and sex be off-screen, so like the others, no on the book/movie. But a big yes on Michael's work! Thanks for the introduction - something Reds do so well.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Hey Michael! Congratulations on the new book — can't wait to read it. So glad to see you here at Jungle Reds. Like you, I prefer a "fill in the blanks" sex scene. Cutting to the morning after is always good.

As far as 50 Shades goes, I'm not a fan, but I will say that I'm published by Random House, who publishes it, and it's been great for the company. More than great. The year it came out, EVERY RH employee got a $5,000 bonus. So say what you want abut it, but it's brought a lot of money into the book business and has brought a lot of people into book stores. And that's always a good thing.

Ramona said...

Hi Michael. I've been in a few workshops and some were great, and some not so great. I have a pretty tough hide, which is necessary because I dish out a lot of criticism, but those workshops have saved me from embarrassing myself or wasting time, so it's well worth wading through the chaff to find the good stuff.

Fifty Shades: I read the first one, recently, because I wanted to be able to discuss it. Can't discuss it if you haven't read it, IMO. It took me about an hour. Maybe I didn't read every word. I've read worse. I've read better. It was meh, IMO, but I wasn't offended by it. I didn't connect with either character, but as Susan points out, a whole bunch of people did. And they bought 2 sequels, so that says something.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I read the books to see what the hype was about and so I could talk knowledgeably about them. My concern with the first book was that the younger readers -- not having much life experience -- would think that is was love is. And actually, the other books work on the relationship side of things better. I personally don't mind reading erotica done well. It's the badly written ones that get all the attention. :) And like a lot of things, moderation. A little goes a long way.

Jungle Red Writers said...

Yeah, the first reaction to criticism is to defend yourself--so I try to remember that I'll feel better later--and the point is to have a better book! Which we would all do anything to have happen, right?

And yes, if it gets people into bookstores, hurray.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

That was really me, Hank, above.

SO MAry--both actors said they wish they hadn't? Why?

And do you all watch The Fall? It's a terrific TV show, on , and BBC, maybe? And Gillian Anderson plays a British detective (with a bad accent.) But point is--the truly awful bad serial killer (who we know from moment one) is played by the same man who plays the lead in 50 shades. And he is SO unattractive!

Mary Sutton said...

Hank, from what I remember, it was mostly that they just didn't connect - and the story felt lifeless. I'll see if I can find the whole story again.

I do not watch The Fall, but I didn't think the guy playing Christian Grey looked all that hot in the trailers for 50 Shades. Now if they had cast Matt Bomer, as rumored, ...

Mary Sutton said...

Oh, and my daughter told me she read an article that Jamie Dornan and Dakota (Anastasia) hated each other, and filming was a nightmare.

Kathy Reel said...

OK, I guess I'm the degenerate in the group, since I read all three of the Fifty Shades books. In my defense, I was looking for painting colors, and I was slow to catch on that there would be no painting discussions. Will I see the movie. Doubtful, as the casting of Dakota Johnson was a real misstep in my opinion. She seems like such a kid, and growing up with Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith in movies and TV, it would seem like watching my kid do the risque behavior.

As far as sex scenes in what I read. I'm fine with the use my own imagination approach of writers, setting up the scene and not describing every little move or action. Now, I do enjoy some romance between characters and the gentle touch or embrace or even kiss, but that's enough for me.

Michael, Long Way Down sounds like a great read, so onto the TBR list it goes, and I enjoyed your comments on writing workshops. Oh, and that beautiful head of hair that you have should be illegal. Hahaha!

Grandma Cootie said...

I don't automatically skip over them but also won't buy a book just looking for them. Depends on the story, what it adds, and how the author handles it. I am usually perfectly fine with a 'space break.'

Nope, didn't read and not going to see the movie. Even if everything I read might not be in the great literature category, I think I read some great writers and see no need to waste time on this stuff.

Somehow missed this series so going to catch up by reading Black Fridays first.

Lisa Alber said...

Hi Michael! Congrats on the new book!

I'm in a new writing group after a couple of years not being in one. I like the process, and they're picking up on good stuff. However, even in the best groups there's always that one person's critiques I need to keep at arm's length. Have you found that?

FChurch said...

What I want to read is Dave Barry's commentary on Fifty Shades.... The reviews were not promising, it wasn't my kind of story to begin with, so never picked it up and don't intend to. As for the movie, wouldn't watch it if someone gave me a personal screening.

Sex is fine, but I know all the mechanical stuff--so show me what I don't know--how is the sex resonating with the characters, what does it mean for them?

Enjoyed your take on writing groups, Michael--a good group is one whose members are actively working together to help each other.

And look forward to picking up your latest!

FChurch said...

Okay, I found Dave Barry's comments. Thanks for the best laugh I've had all day--my only regret--Double Crap!--is that his column was too short!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I agree--its HILARIOUS. I'll find the link and post it here. He has the best voice!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Here it is!

Julia said...

Well, I write sex scenes. For me - for any good writer, I hope - my approach is the same as with any scene in the book. Does the scene reveal character or advance the plot? Does it create conflict or complications? Is the relationship between characters different at the end than it was at the beginning?

If yes, then write that sexy stuff. If no, close the bedroom door.

One thing I found interesting once the first book with sex scenes was published - I'd never been asked about how I knew about shootings, bludgeonings, drug deals and gang violence. But EVERYONE wanted to knew if Ross and I got busy on the kitchen table like Russ and Clare! (Answer: none of your beeswax.) (Answer 2: Sorry, Mom.) (Answer 3: REALLY sorry, kids.)

Julia said...

P.S. I meant to include - Michael, I've read several of your novels in the past and don't remember any sex scenes! That suggests they were perfectly integrated with the rest of the story, and didn't stick out in that "what is this doing here?" way.

Dani said...

I might read FSoG just so I can legitimately criticize it. The movie trailers give me the urgs already, so I'll pass on seeing the film. As to reading/writing sex scenes, I'm okay with them if they're respectful of the characters involved - and I hate euphemisms for body parts!

Kathy Reel said...

Julia, I love the way you do the intimate scenes for Clare and Russ!

I feel the need to make an additional comment about reading Fifty Shades of Gray. These books are the only erotica type books I've ever read (unless you count Valley of the Dolls when I was a teenager), but even if they weren't, I feel that there is a bit much judgement in the reading community towards anyone who has read the books or pride at not having stooped that low. I was simply curious about their wild popularity, I read them, and I didn't go blind. Not a bad thing resulted from my exposure to the bad writing and explicit sex. I immediately went back to great authors and great writing.

storytellermary said...

No to 50 Shades . . . I did read a little excerpt and watched Ellen's reading of a bit of it, and loved Dave Barry's review (thanks for posting that Ramona). I'd need a case of red pens if I read much of it.
I'm with Hank in wanting the characters to have the privacy of a closed door.
I'm looking forward to reading Michael's work based on what I've read here, and more of Julia's books . . . soon??

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Kathy Reel, I read all three. I guess it wasn't very clear in my post. :) My favorite books? No, of course not. If it gets more people reading? Fantastic. I made my husband read The Hunger Games Trilogy and then the Divergent trilogy and now he's in a habit of reading (the books he chooses for himself). Anything that does that for anyone, I applaud.

Kathy Reel said...

PK, I am at fault for not having read more carefully. It's clear that you read them, and your feedback on them is in line with what I got from them, too. Not my favorite books by far, but an interesting departure from my usual reading. I was just feeling pretty lonely about this matter and felt like I needed to defend it a bit. And, maybe Fifty Shades did accomplish people reading more that didn't before. Thanks for reminding me that I wasn't the only one here who read the books.

Lora said...

Sex scenes were absolutely wrecked for me when I came across the following phrases in a book I was reading; "his turgid man tool" and "his throbbing love rod". I nearly peed myself laughing. Now every time I come across a sex scene, those phrases pop into my head and any eroticism shrivels like...well, you know.

Congratulations on the new book... Looking forward to reading it. And many, many congratulations on your years of wedded bliss, and commitment to it!!