Saturday, September 28, 2013

WARM SHEETS: Sex Scenes in Fiction

When I handed the manuscript of Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery to Billie Johnson, in hopes that her publishing house, Oak Tree Press, would publish it, I felt duty-bound to caution her that the novel had a couple of sex scenes. She gave me a look that was half grin, half frown and asked, “Hot sheets?” I replied, “Well, warm sheets.” Apparently Billie wasn’t offended, because the book will be published by OTP in November. 
How much sex belongs in a novel that’s partly about love, and especially a novel set in the free-and-easy counter-culture of the 1970s? And how explicit should the sex scenes be? Both answers depend on whom the writer wants to entertain. Let’s assume we’re not writing for the porn audience. Let’s also assume we’re not writing for young children or prudes. Somewhere between these extremes is an intelligent audience of readers who accept sex as a normal and healthy ingredient of life, especially when we’re writing about the relationship of a couple of lovers.

Still, it’s a touchy subject, and sex described clumsily can appear offensive, laughable, or boring. I propose a few guidelines for keeping sex scenes intelligent and meaningful.

1. Less is more. There’s no need to tell about every time a couple make love. There’s no need to describe in detail every feature of the human body, nor does the reader want a complete laundry list of your characters’ clothing as it is unbuttoned, unzipped, torn off, and cast aside. And remember that every sex act doesn’t end with a fireworks display and a hallelujah chorus.

2. Engage the brain. Remember that the mind is the most erogenous zone we’ve got. Don’t be afraid to inject some humor into the scene if it’s appropriate, or tears if they’re called for. And try to come up with something original, difficult as that may seem. After all, you want your characters to be interesting in everything they do.

3. Remember that fiction is about change. This sex should be important to the plot, not just a dance routine thrown in for added entertainment. The sex act should significantly change either one or the other lover, or both, and it will most likely change the nature of the relationship as well.

I now close by giving a preview of coming attractions, this one being the first, and most explicit, sex scene in Hooperman. It’s rated PG-13. I hope you won’t be offended. In fact I hope you’ll want to read more.

Lucinda walked to the window and looked down on the lights of University Avenue. “That’s our store.” She pulled the shade down and turned. “Uh.…”
Hoop crossed the room to her, put his hands on her hips, and looked into her kind eyes. “Yes?”
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “First-time jitters. You know. Hoop, could we like turn off that light? I’m kind of shy. I mean, we’re going to do our thing, right?”
“I sure hope so.”
“Thing is, I’m like I said, shy. Because I’m what you might call…heavy?”
Hoop went to the pole lamp and turned it off. “Ceh,ceh,ceh candle?” he asked the silhouette against the window shade.
“Oh. Yeah, that would be far out, I guess.” Without much conviction.
“I duh,don’t have a ceh,ceh,candle.”
She laughed out loud across the dark. “C’mere, you.”
By the time Hoop reached her, she was completely out of her clothes. She didn’t feel heavy. Unless you mean like a rich dessert.
“I’m a little shy muh,muh,myself,” he said. “It’s bib…een so long…”
“Tell me about it. I haven’t had any for weeks.”
“Muh,muh,muh,months,” he said. Years, really, but he didn’t want to sound desperate.
“We better do something about that, my man.” She worked on the shirt buttons while he dealt with the belt buckle and slipped out of his sandals. When their clothes lay in a mixed jumble on the linoleum, they baby-stepped to the bed, where she toppled him down onto his back and climbed in after him, her soft laugh light with pleasure, the scent of her body heavy with desire.

Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, will be published in November by Oak Tree Press.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Falling in Love in Fiction

When I placed the manuscript of Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery in the hands of Billie Johnson, publisher of Oak Tree Press, I told her, in the spirit of full disclosure, that the novel was as much about love as it was about crime. But if it doesn’t fit the mystery genre entirely (for example, there’s no dead body), it certainly doesn’t fit the romance genre either. Or maybe it does, but I doubt it; I’m no expert when it comes to romance novels.
I do have strong opinions, though, when it comes to writing about love and relationship, love and sex, and the thrilling experience of falling in love. No matter how a person experiences relationship, sex, or falling in love in “real life,” when a fiction writer takes on these subjects, it’s all about change. That’s how the magic of fiction works: something happens to somebody, and that something is change.

In subsequent posts I will write about relationship fiction, and sex in fiction. (Stay tuned for coming attractions!) For this week’s post I want to focus on that overwhelming, surprising, beautiful (usually), changing experience of falling.

As if we needed some instruction or a road map for falling in love, I’m guessing at least a third of the standards in the Great American Songbook deal with the magic moment. Steve Allen wrote, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” and Johnny Burke warned us “It Could Happen to You.” For my money Nat King Cole put it best when he sang, “Flash! Bam! Alakazam! Wonderful you walked by…”

In fiction this experience changes a person from dull to alive, from self-centered to embracing, from sleepwalking to tap-dancing. Be warned, however, that falling in love can bring a lot of disruption and trouble; but let’s be carefree lovers and forget the consequences…until some later chapter.

In Hooperman, my protagonist falls in love twice. The first time is with a girl in his second-grade class. That relationship begins without a flash or a bam, but it lasts for twenty years, and is still haunting him when he falls in love for the second time at the age of thirty. Plenty of flash and plenty of bam the second time around.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the novel, showing the scene where Hoop loses his heart at the age of seven.


            The kids at Fernway School didn’t call him Frankie or Frank. They called him Hoop when they were kind, or Hooperman when they wanted a good laugh. Mostly they ignored him, unless they wanted a good laugh.
“Call him Hooperman!” shouted Jimmy O’Brien at recess the first day of first grade. “That’s what he wants to be called!”
“Hooperman! Hooperman!”
All the time Hooperman.
Second grade, Hooperman again. The new kids needed to be taught: “Call him Hooperman!”
One of the new kids didn’t join in. Janie Gillis, the silent girl with scarlet hair, who hid her mouth behind her hand, so Frankie could never know if she was smirking at him or laughing at him. All he knew was she was the most beautiful girl in the universe.
He was by her side for the first time, on the asphalt pavement when Jimmy O’Brien stuck it to him again in the usual way: “Tag—not it!”
“Not it!”
“Not it!”
And so on till the only ones left were Janie, who never said anything, and Hoop, who was always the last to say “Nah,nah,nah,nnnnn…”
Always it. They did it on purpose.
“His face is red! Look, he’s crying!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
All together: “It’s Hoooooperman!”
Frankie walked slowly back to the classroom, closed the door behind him, and sat at his desk. He picked up a book but was unable to read.
The door opened and Janie walked in. She came across the room, reached out, and touched his hot cheek, then put her finger into her mouth. Then her hand went over her mouth and she hurried back across the room to her desk, where she pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil.
Kids drifted in, the bell rang, school lasted all afternoon, and after the last bell rang, kids ran out. The teacher left, and Janie and Frankie were the only ones left in the classroom.
Janie crossed the room and handed Frankie a sheet of paper, folded and folded and folded. She bit her lower lip. She blushed, shook her head, scurried to her desk, gathered her things, and left the room, without looking again at the boy.
He unfolded the paper and read:

“You’re It”

“Your eyes are the color of sky,
Your tear has a taste of the sea,
And I keep on wondering why
            You make such a difference to me.”

Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, will be published in November by Oak Tree Press.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


This week I’m proud to welcome a writer I highly admire, Nancy Klann-Moren. Please welcome her and read what she has to say about The Joy of Story. Nancy, take it away—

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Because I’m writer of fiction (teller of tales, fabricator of pretend stories), this is my favorite Mark Twain quote. My second favorite of his is “Get your facts first. Then you can distort them as you please.”
 I’ve embraced these ideas in my writing process, and sometimes think about the restraints that producing non-fiction or memoir would put on me. I’d have to write the TRUTH. Yikes.
Let’s say the truth is this: A lady wearing a beige suit is running down the platform of a train station struggling because her suitcase has a busted wheel. She waves to the conductor who, despite the delay it will cause, holds the train for her. 
Right away I want to change this, thinking a chartreuse suit would be more interesting. Just a teensy fib. Even better, a chartreuse caftan with a matching pillbox hat. Yes, better. What about a hot pink mini skirt with black fishnet stockings, and platform shoes? No, too cliché.
For me, this is where the true joy of writing lives―in the act of making up stuff and distorting the facts.

Draft 1: Dragging her crippled suitcase down the platform, Monika half-heartedly waived at the conductor, secretly hoping he wouldn’t notice her. If luck was with her, it could be her way out, her excuse. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the wedding. I missed the train.”
This thought caused her to laugh at herself, considering every item on her body, from the thrift store Salvatore Ferragamo scarf to the Betsey Johnson “Ginger” pumps she scored on sale for $65.00, had been strategically chosen so she would be noticed.
Okay, I like that. Wondering if she’s a guest, or the bride. Let’s see what else I can come up with.

Draft 2: After three clueless attempts to find Union Station from the hotel, Veronica finally convinced the cab driver to call dispatch for directions. Despite the lameness of the cabbie and the nauseating odor inside the vehicle, her overly polite upbringing caused her to feel obligated to tip the man. That is, until he pulled her bag out of the trunk, slammed it into the curb, and broke off a back wheel.
“What an IDIOT,” she yelled, pulling her three-wheeled suitcase through the station on her way to platform 7. “I’ll miss the train.” All eyes, including the conductor’s, turned toward the long-legged woman with the fog-horn voice. 
 Yes, lots of possibilities. But, let’s get back to the woman in the beige suit. 

Draft 3: Jeanette was familiar with the long walk down platform 7 to her seat in the third car from the rear of the Pacific Surfliner, train 769. Too familiar. She’d walked it every Thursday for three years now, exactly. Today, their anniversary. She wore the suit, the beige one she had on the first time they met. Jerry spotted her and flashed his generous smile. She waved. It didn’t matter that the wheels on her suitcase chose to protest this rendezvous. Jerry would hold the train for her, like he did every Thursday.

Oh the joy of making up stuff. Thank you John, my mentor and friend, for inviting me to your blog.

Thank you, Nancy, for joining me this week, and for posting such an entertaining and informative description of your creative process. Now please tell us all a bit about yourself and your writing career.

I tried my hand at writing short fiction while traveling for work in advertising and marketing, as a creative outlet on long plane rides. That led to signing up for writing classes, writer’s conferences, and local workshops. My goal―to create unique stories told in a distinctive voice. I’m happy to say some of the stories have garnered awards and publication in anthologies. Eleven of them are published in my collection of short stories titled Like The Flies On The Patio.
Short stories were my primary genre until one morning while in a workshop at The Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I read an excerpt. When I finished, the instructor asked what I was doing for the next couple years, because, “What you have written isn’t a short story, it’s a novel.” After a good deal of foot dragging I came to realize the subject matter was compelling, and I penned the novel, The Clock of Life.
I am now working on a new novel loosely based on the time my friend and I found an old diary in an antique shop and took a road trip to find the lady who wrote in the book. The girls will not be named Thelma and Louise, but the story will take them cross country and they will get into all sorts of trouble.
Favorite authors: T.C. Boyle, Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury, Susan Cisneros. 

The Clock of Life
In the small town of Hadlee, Mississippi, during the 1980s, Jason Lee Rainey struggles to find his way amongst the old, steadfast Southern attitudes about race, while his friendship with a black boy, Samson Johnson, deepens.
By way of stories from others, Jason Lee learns about his larger-than-life father, who was killed in Vietnam. He longs to become that sort of man, but doesn’t believe he has it in him.
In The Clock Of Life he learns lessons from the past, and the realities of inequality. He flourishes with the bond of friendship; endures the pain of senseless death; finds the courage to stand up for what he believes is right; and comes to realize he is his father’s son.
This story explores how two unsettling chapters in American history, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, affect the fate of a family, a town, and two boyhood friends.
The Clock of Life won a finalist award from the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and a finalist position from Readers’ Favorite Book Awards (Winners announced Sept 1st). It’s on the Kindle Book Review 2013 Best Indie Book awards semi-finalist list (Winners announced Oct. 1st), and it has an honorable mention from the San Francisco Book Festival 2013.

Like The Flies on the Patio is a collection of eleven short stories that explores the complexities of relationships—some real, some imagined. Here’s the review of Like The Flies on the Patio that I (John) posted on Amazon:

The protagonists and narrators of these stunning short stories are well-drawn, individual, and worth listening to for their wisdom and wit. They also tend to be lonely and heartbroken, lost and looking for self-esteem. What makes them survive and earn our compassion and love is their decency, and the ironic poetry of their thoughts and words. Nancy Klann-Moren is a bewitching writer with a style both funny and poignant at the same time.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


The subject of this month’s invitational post is career change. Note the important word “change.” Change is an essential ingredient of any story: something has to happen to somebody, and that somebody has to change.
Why do people change jobs? Why do they choose to pursue new careers? Read the following seven 99-word stories and learn seven different answers. But there’s one element all seven stories have in common: conflict. Conflict is another essential ingredient of any story. A story without conflict is like a meal without food.

Following the stories is an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Hooperman, which will be published by Oak Tree Press in November. This scene is taken from the first chapter in the book, and it shows Hoop Johnson trying to get a job—any job—working in his favorite bookstore. He has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Career change, for sure! Danger, most likely!
Finally, at the very end of this post is the challenge for next month’s 99-Word Story collection.


by Alice Truscott

The emotional highs and lows that go into trying to get a new job. Ugh. Gearing up for those awful situational questions. How did you handle a dishonest coworker? Can’t remember. How did you deal with an aggressive customer?
Got the hell out of Dodge.
How can you improve our bottom line?
Don’t know.
What kind of experience do you have as a leader?
By the end I’m wrung out and want to run screaming from the room. Then, finally, like winning the lottery, somebody decides maybe you are the one.
Time to learn the new job. Yippee!


By Jill Evans

Charlie was excited about his first day, but felt perplexed when he was directed to the machine shop and the factory foreman.
He watched as the foreman demonstrated. “You take a piece of metal, center it on the machine, press this red button, let the machine stamp it, then remove it. Then you take another piece and do it again.”
Charlie recalled the conversation with the recruiter who promised him a leadership role with daily challenges and high corporate visibility.
“You could get a monkey to do that,” Charlie said.
“Welcome to Hudson Enterprises.”
Charlie left without saying goodbye.


by June Kosier

Grandpa started working for the newspaper at the age of twelve. He delivered newspapers before school, rode a trolley car after school dropping newspapers off at newsstands, and then answered phones in the office.
He became a printer and worked until they made him retire at the age of seventy-six. The paper was going to be printed by computer and they did not want to train him. He threw his retirement watch at them.
Now the paper will be printed digitally by another newspaper and all the printers are being let go. History repeats itself.


by Pat Shevlin

“I really need you,” Jim would plead passionately when he called. She dismissed him for months, but this day was different; today she proposed.
His rejection stung: “I can’t take you away from him now. Our friendship is good again; that could change if I take you away.”
Trisha was hurt. “Don’t ever ask me again.”
Months passed and there he was again. Should she risk it: an older woman and a younger man? Was he worth it?
Leaving the security of 20-plus years in law, Trisha took a leap to Wall Street, where they worked happily ever after.


by Jerry Giammatteo

It was my first job and I had the boss from hell. He railed at me over the smallest mistakes. “You’re an accountant,” he thundered. “You should know this.”
 I was an accounting major fresh out of St. John’s University. The cheap SOB refused to send me to training. He was called Tomato-Face because it was constantly red from yelling. Quitting was my best move.
 I approached my next job with trepidation, but my boss was great. If I screwed up, he showed me why and how to make corrections.
 Maybe I can do this, I thought confidently.


by Christine Viscuso

 “Clarence Bailey, why did you give up a successful law practice to become an entomologist and study ants?”
“Because, Mona, I’m tired of getting people like Irwin Plout off.”
“Isn’t he the guy that bludgeoned his family, cooked, and ate them?”
“Instead we’re in Kenya, being munched on by Driver Ants.”
“Ants have been around for a bajillion years. By studying them, I may help solve some of the world’s problems. I can make a difference.”
“You may have to switch careers again, dear. Seems that Irwin followed us. He’s in front of our hut, strangling a native!”


by Martha Walden

The lash whistles through the air above my bare back. SNAP!
“Row, damn you,” he roars.
“I’m rowing, I’m rowing!” I say. My hands are tied to a splintery oar. My feet are submerged in cold water. Apparently, this boat is sinking.
Whistle, whistle, SNAP!
“Way to reinforce those stereotypes,” I howl.
“Just call me Simon Legree,” he leers.
Simon Legree?
Suddenly I’m black and surrounded by cotton plants. My bare feet sink into the hot dirt.
Actually, I’m sitting in front of a computer, fighting the urge to bang my head on the screen.
“Get to work!”


Now, as promised, a teaser from my forthcoming novel, Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery. Hoop Johnson, a 30-year-old Stanford drop-out, has just quit his job as a pizza chef because he’s seen a sign in the window of the bookstore across the street.

Hoop walked into the office inside the office. Elmer Maxwell looked up from his desk, pulled his reading glasses down on his nose, and looked over the top. He told Hoop he was busy, but the words he used were, “Can I help you?”
Hoop scratched his beard and took a deep breath. “It’s about the juh,dge job. That sss…hign in the window.”
Elmer smiled kindly and said, “I don’t think you’re right for the job, my friend.”
“You’re the man they call Hooperman, right? The pizza delivery guy? You’re famous! My staff loves you. But this is not the job for you. Trust me.”
“Howk, howkuh,kuh,come?”
Elmer paused, then asked, “Hooperman, do you know what shrinkage is?”
Hoop shook his head.
Elmer Maxwell’s eyebrows formed a battle line. “If I have a hundred dollars worth of books, and over the course of a year I take in ten bucks in exchange for books, I should have ninety dollars worth of books left on my shelves, right?”
“Meh,meh,makes ss,hense.”
“Right. Makes sense. So you tell me why in June of this year I closed the store to do our annual physical inventory, and when the numbers came to rest, I was nineteen thousand dollars in the hole. In the hole.”
The Elmer Maxwell now standing up behind his desk was not the cranky businessman too busy to talk to Hoop when he first walked into the office. Nor was he the affable celebrity who had called Hoop famous. This Elmer was a tall, balding, furious victim who had been robbed—robbed—out of nineteen thousand dollars.
“It may be one crook, or it may be a gang of crooks, or it may be a whole ill-mannered generation of crooks, but I’m going to stop them,” he said. “And you, Hoop Johnson, are not the man to do it.”
“Howk, howk—”
“Oh, stop it. Please. Unless I’m mistaken, you have difficulty expressing yourself, right?”
“Only when I speh,ssspeh,speh,sss…peak.”
Elmer shrugged. “Well, this is a speaking role, my friend.”
“Only a pup…roblem with cuh,cuh,consonants. Only some. Okay with vowels. Muh,muh,mostly. Teh,tell me about the juh,dge…ob.”
Another shrug. Another sigh. “I’m looking for a sneak to prowl the aisles of my store for hours, pretending to browse the books.”
“I’m into that,” Hoop said. “For sure.”
“Wait. You’re not really browsing. That’s one of the reasons you’re not right for the job. You’ll spend your energy looking at the books, not the crooks.”
“Any other reasons?”
“Yes. Okay, so you spot a man stuffing a book into the back of his pants, then letting his shirt drop down and cover the evidence. He walks out of the store. Are you up to following this thief out of the store and stopping him on University Avenue and saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, I want you to show me what you have stuffed in the back of your pants?’”
Hoop thought about it. Stupid job. Then he thought about being able to browse the shelves of Maxwell’s Books—for pay.
“I’m your muh,muh,muh,mmm…an.”
“You think you’ll be able to argue with some hard-headed fast-talker?” Elmer asked.
“I’m duh,duh,doing that right now.”
Elmer laughed all the air out of his barrel chest and shook his head. “Well, kiddo, nobody else wants the job. So we’ll go with the Hooperman.”


Want to find out what Hoop’s new job really entails? Can a good-natured fellow with a stammer survive in the fast-talking world of books and crooks? Be sure to read the book when it comes out!


Now, for next month’s invitational post, here’s your challenge. In honor of October, the one month of the year when children are encouraged to say “BOO!” I want you to send me a story that shows the power of language to shock, surprise, and scare. Don’t be timid! Take chances!
Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, characters, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: