Monday, April 19, 2010

Sex and Death

This week the quirky and fascinating Tony Hays is guest blogging for me, Rebecca Cantrell. Tony Hays travels a lot. He's a novelist and journalist who has visited nearly thirty countries, living and teaching in six of them, including three and a half years in Kuwait.

But Tony doesn't just travel in space, he also travels in time. His mystery series at Tor Forge is set in Dark Ages Britain. When the first of his series, The Killing Way, was released in March 2009, it received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal. The second, The Divine Sacrifice, was released on March 30, 2010. In yet another starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called it “brilliant.” And Booklist proclaimed it, “another edgy installment of this superb, Arthurian-inspired mystery series.”

Tony, amongst all those stars and accolades lurk some scenes that were difficult to write. Which scene was the worst?


The most difficult scene I’ve ever had to write. Hmm. I’m afraid this might be a cliché, but the most difficult scenes for me to write fall into two camps – sex scenes and death scenes, for many of the same reasons.

Now, it’s not that I don’t have a pretty clear understanding of sex; I’ve been married twice. (Hold up. That might not be the best evidence.) At any rate, the problem with writing sex scenes is that the sexual experience can tend to defy definition. And that makes most sex scenes either dry and dull or just downright silly. Writing them, that is. They either come out with so many anatomical terms that they read like a sex ed textbook (which I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth) or the prose becomes so purple – “engorged members, maidenheads, etc. - that they read like an entry from the “On a dark and stormy night” competition.


In my new novel, The Divine Sacrifice, two characters had developed an intense attraction for each other. (Like Faulkner , I believe in “character possession,” when the characters rise up and take control of the story.) For it to be completely unrequited was just not in the cards. I twisted and I turned. I looked at all the metaphors and the similes, all the euphemisms, and each time I rejected them. The novel is a first person narration, so I opted for the Raymond Carver path: “I took her.” In this instance, less is more. I’m not sure that that needs any further description. And I remain pretty satisfied with that decision.


Death scenes are equally difficult to write. Make them last too long and they seem staged and melodramatic. Make them too brief, and you end up leaving your reader dissatisfied and wanting more. Towards the end of The Killing Way, a character dies. Initially, it played out in a rather short sequence. My editor thought it should be expanded, and rightly so. Because I have concerns about writing death scenes, I had under-written it, so to speak. I did expand it, but as a couple of readers have pointed out, the revised version comes off as a little staged and melodramatic. Obviously, I still have something to learn.

In a larger sense, it is perfectly logical that these sort of scenes, the creation of life and its departure, would prove problematic. Both are highly intense, personal experiences, and how a person deals with them in real life is as individualistic as you can get. In the final analysis, I think the secret for me is to make these admittedly difficult scenes as true to the character of the participants as possible.

8 comments:

Gabi said...

At least you haven't tried to combine the sex and death scene. I'm with you. My sex scenes tend to come off like twister with a 13-year old boy vocab and the death scenes either as a medical examiner's report or the long-version of Camille. I'm going to pick up a copy of your new book to see how you managed these tricky spots. Good luck with it.

Sophie Littlefield said...

great to be introduced to your work here and looking forward to checking out the books!

Tony Hays said...

Thanks, Gabi and Sophie. I write a great deal in first person. I'm just more comfortable in that viewpoint. And, it goes hand in hand with an old philosophy of mine. Writing fiction is like acting. You put yourself in the role of whatever character you're writing about and pretend to be that person. It works really well with first person.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I have a sex scene right after a death scene, Gabi. But not in the same place. Ewwww....

I too have trouble with sex scenes. Usually, I start with condensing it all into the word "afterward" but my writing group, agent, and editor never let me get away with that. And I'm always sure it ends up silly, although I've had no complaints about them (of course, what kind of whacko writes to tell you that you got the sex wrong?).

Thanks for the great post, Tony!

Terry Stonecrop said...

Yes, sex is something where you had to be there. Easy to do, tough to write.

Enjoyed your post! I'm with you on the first person. I love playing my characters. It's fun.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks for being with us today, Tony. I've never tried first-person; my writing is "third-person attached at the hip so closely it could be an alien." First appeals to me greatly, though, and I might try a stand-alone just to see how it goes.

What exactly is Dark Britain. Is it Britain in the Dark Ages, and if so, what typifies that period?

Tony Hays said...

That's Britain in the winter, when it starts getting dark at about 2pm. Sorry about that typo, Shane.

Kelli Stanley said...

Your books sound fascinating, Tony!! I've long been a buff of Arthurian legend (and my own male protag is named Arcturus). :)

Looking forward to adding them to my TBR pile!

Kelli