Victor J. Banis is well known to any aficionado of M/M romance or gay fiction. He has been writing longer than most authors today and is a master of his craft. Because of Victor’s exceptional background in this genre he was one of the first people that I asked to impart his knowledge to new authors. Here’s the first installment. Victor has promised to return so you will have the opportunity to experience the writing world through his eyes again and again.
How to write M/M fiction? Hmm. The simple answer to that is, it’s the same as writing any kind of fiction. Yes, there are certain conventions that apply in every genre, but by and large, good writing is good writing. I coached a number of writers back in the day, and I hold a record I think is probably unmatched – every single one of my writers went on to have at least one book published, and some enjoyed long and profitable careers. But what I taught them is certainly more than I can share with you here in this one post. So, yes, if I can come back for a second visit, I will share a few more of my tips with you next time. In the meantime, here are some pointers you may find helpful, many of them (but not all) from Spine Intact, Some Creases.
One tip I will not give you is that old chestnut, “Write what you know.” I have always thought that inane, and have become increasingly convinced of it as the years roll by. I am now painfully aware of how little I do know. I could write volumes, however, on what I don’t know. My advice is, write what you don’t know, which is what you were given imagination and the writing bug for, and concentrate on how you write it.
Bear in mind at all times, writing is an abstraction. Avoid piling abstraction upon abstraction. If your character sips a glass of wine, it means nothing to the reader. If he sips a glass of chardonnay, every reader who has ever sipped a glass of chardonnay will share the experience with him. Don’t have him get into his car, put him in his Beetle, or his Toyota. Music in the background? Make it Bach, or the Who, or Joni Mitchell. Be specific.
Write as directly as possible. Don’t say, “Then, I heard the ringing of the doorbell.” For starters the reader will assume that the character heard the doorbell then and not at some other time. Look upon every use of “then” with suspicion. Chances are you could write the sentence better without it. Always try to write better.
Likewise, since you are filtering the story through the character’s senses one would assume, unless he is deaf (and that is a legitimate tool you may use, but it must then contribute to shaping the character and through the character the story you are telling) that he heard it.
Finally “the ringing of the doorbell” is passive and has far less power than the sentence you really want to write: “The doorbell rang.” Or, “Oh, no, the damned doorbell,” which sets an entirely different scene. Or, “Buzz. The doorbell. Buzz, buzz. What should he do? Buzz, buzz, buzz.”
Avoid continuous action. There are certainly exceptions but “was coming,” “was singing,” “was driving” and their like are almost invariably less effective than “came,” ‘sang,” or “drove.” This is not to say you can never use these forms, but mix them sparingly with your simple past (or present) tense verbs, to give a sentence variety. Too much ‘ing’ and your writing loses zing.
Do not try to find substitutes for “said.” Said is a convention. Readers are so used to it they scarcely even notice it. Your goal as a writer is to make yourself invisible. When your characters yell, expostulate, or yodel, the reader cannot but notice. He is made aware that this is not an experience he is living but one you are narrating to him. He steps back and the illusion is lost.
For the same reason you do not want to use any adverb with “said.” You should regard every adverb as guilty until proven innocent, because when you use them you are telling your readers rather than showing them, always a cardinal sin; but the worst of those sins is the adverb attached to “said.” Do not have your character say anything “tearfully.” Better to have her say what she says with a simple “said” (if necessary to identify the speaker), and then follow it with “her eyes filled with tears.”
Better yet is to use those tears to demonstrate something more to the reader: “‘I can’t go,’ she said. Her tears caught him off guard. He felt something burst in his chest.” That tells you several things, does it not, about both these characters and their relationship? Not bad for eighteen words, and not an adverb among them.
There is a rule in interior decorating—more than one half but less than two thirds. What that means is, uneven numbers or proportions are more interesting than even. Three characters will work better in a scene than four. If you are repeating a word or a theme, do it three times—think of Bette Davis in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934) crying, “You’re nothing but a mug! A mug! A mug!” It really wants that third mug, doesn’t it? Verdi was a master of repeating his musical effects in threes. On the other hand a single scream, a cry of pain or joy, can pierce the heart like a stiletto.
Of course, there are instances where even must rule. Even numbers suggest resolution, completion, formality. Again, in decorating you use evenly balanced arrangements—say, candlesticks on a mantel—to create a formal feel, as in a period room. That supposes that the candlesticks are matching. If you put two different candles on the mantel or space them unevenly you create tension.
Likewise when you put two different people in a scene you introduce tension—as in a love scene between a man and a woman—they are different if you hadn’t noticed (but think about how the effect changes when a third person is introduced and I am not trying to be bawdy). In a sense, that makes writing a love scene between two men or two women, a bit trickier—you have to be careful to show the reader that they are not the same person. Which is to say, you are back to characterization.
Writing books have a lot to say about style, much of it I am afraid not very useful. Style is an elusive subject. Any writer soon learns that Flaubert had it right, unfortunately: “Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.”
Clarity is essential, of course. The job of your novel is to communicate. If a writer must appear on a talk show to explain to her readers what she was talking about, she hasn’t done her job, has she? And certainly, in the service of clarity, simplicity. You could count these as the cardinal rules of style, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem to help much, does it?
For the most part I think style, like enlightenment, comes to you rather than the other way around. I think it is important—in all things having to do with learning your craft actually—to read—a lot—and to read good writers. Classics, of course. If nothing else, Hemingway and Cather can only inspire you.
Learn to read critically, which is to say try to see why a line or a paragraph or a story works so very well, what it is exactly that the writer did. It is very much like a stage play or an opera. A story unfolds onstage and we are caught up in the drama, the lighting, the sound effects. Observe how the actors and the director lead you through each scene, taking you where they want you to go. Play your scene upon the stage of your mind. Be the director. Be the actors.
Go backstage. See what the technicians are doing to make the drama up front so powerful. Learn to pull the ropes, throw the switches, dim or brighten the lights, so that your audience—the reader—is not aware of the mechanics involved but stays entranced by the onstage drama. Once he has seen you working the pulleys it’s too late to cry “pay no attention to the man behind the screen.”
You don’t need to confine yourself to the grandest works either. Read those writers, though they be of popular fiction, who give you the most pleasure. The writers you enjoy the most are likely to be the ones with whose style you have an affinity. Good writing comes in many guises. James Beard was a cookbook writer, but few novelists write with the fluidity and lucidity that you will find in Beard on Food (Knopf, 1974), a collection of his newspaper columns. The recipes are a bonus. Try Stephen Levine’s Who Dies (Anchor Books, 1982). His prose fairly sings and you might end up a little wiser for the experience.
Read aloud and a little loudly if you can get away with it (I don’t recommend this on an airplane). The ear is more important to the writer than you might realize. Good writing has rhythm, a flow, a line, just as good music does.
For that matter listen to good music while you read, or anytime. Put on the overture to Verdi’s Forza del destino (The Force of Destiny). Note how the music is driven forward so inexorably—just as if trapped, impelled, by the force of destiny. You find yourself caught up in the beat, in the melody, swept forward to the conclusion. Your story should be driven forward in just that way, with the same sense of inevitability.
I have already mentioned reading the writings of others aloud. Most certainly, you should read everything of your own aloud, while you are alone, especially the dialogue. How does it fall upon the ear? Does it flow, does it drive forward? Or does it falter, miss a beat, lose its momentum? Trust your ear.
Trust your eyes, too. All art comes from the same wellspring. Spend an afternoon or two in an art museum. Great paintings and sculptures have rhythm too, and line and flow. See how the painter moves you from here to there, how he manages to focus your attention, heighten it, or soften it.
Notice how an artist uses color for effect. Your story has color too, or it should have. Write a paragraph in which you use color to set a mood or reveal some insight. Close your eyes and think about what you have written. Does the color do the job for which it was hired?
Look into the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait. It seems as if you see right into the subject’s soul. So should your reader see into the soul of your characters. Write a scene focused on the eyes of the character or characters involved. Read Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” to see how he did it. Then do it differently.
Study how Turner uses clouds to create feeling. Paint clouds in your novel. Set aside your heroine’s literal form and let her descend a staircase as Duchamp’s nude does, all line and movement. There is no This Art and That Art. Painted art and written art are the same, only the tools are different. Louis Armstrong said there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. There is only good art and bad art.
They used to teach copying long passages from the works of great writers. The idea is not to end up aping your model but to absorb some elements of style at a subconscious level. I can’t say if it works or not but I don’t suppose it can hurt you any to spend some time transcribing Swift, say, or Conrad.
Conrad, by the way, said, “Thinking is the enemy of perfection.” The time for thinking is before you start a book, a song, a dance. Once the work is begun, it is emptiness for which you strive. Which is to say, you want to master the technique first—the grammar, plot skeleton, sentence structure. When you write, “if the house were truly empty,” and then have to pause to ask yourself if it should be “were” or “was,” you have lost your thread (for the record, it’s “were.” If your subordinate clause begins with “if” or “as if,” which is to say in expresses something probably contrary to fact, use “were.”) You write when you no longer have to think about those things and your mind is free to create. Picasso was once asked how it was that of all the abstract artists, he was the most successful. “It’s simple,” he replied, “I learned to draw first.”
Of course, it takes no great perception to see that artists like Picasso break the rules—after they have mastered them. Sometimes style and grammar clash. In the end it is your personal style that is most important but you need to be absolutely confident that what you are doing is really better than saying it properly and not just a gimmick that in the long run may prove obtrusive or distracting to the reader—the very direst of writing sins.
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