Monday, May 9, 2011

Yes, But How Does He Smell?

Hola!  Notice anything different?  Go ahead and take a second to think about, it's not my, I haven't waxed my eyebrows (recently)... It's all the extras on the blog, sillies!  Check out the "follow me" options on the right: twitter, facebook, email.  Awesome, right?  I know, so go ahead and click on them...yeah, right, I'll wait.  Did you also notice the additional couple of pages at the top?  I now have my future projects listed (in case you were dying to know what my Muse has in store for me) and a very lengthy essay that answers all of your hard-hitting questions about moi!  You. Are. Welcome!  *lol*

Okay, enough of that nonsense.

Today's guest (I'll write my own post soon, I promise!) is my writing friend, Ruthie Knox. I met her through a mutally entered contest where, after reading her entry, I shamelessly wrote an entire essay in the comments section on how much I loved her writing and gave her my email address in hopes she'd contact me to talk shop.

Fortunately for me she wasn't put off by my mild stalker behavior and we've been corresponding ever since. I've read a couple of her finished manuscripts and, believe me when I tell you, she is an absolute genius when it comes to contemporary romance. Not only did she sign with her dream agent in under four days, but said agent is in the process of pitching her books in AS IS condition. (I know, right?!)

I asked Ruthie to share one of her writing tips with us and she definitely did not disappoint...

Yes, But How Does He Smell?

There’s this scene in When Harry Met Sally where Harry and Sally are strolling in Central Park and talking about fantasies. Sally confesses to Harry she’s had this recurring dream ever since she was twelve, but it’s too embarrassing to tell him about. Then she tells him.

“Okay, there’s this guy,” she admits.

“What’s he look like?” Harry wants to know.

“I don’t know, he’s just kind of faceless,” she says.

“Faceless guy. Okay, then what?”

“He rips off my clothes.”

“Then what happens?”

“That’s it.”

Harry is flabbergasted. “That’s it? A faceless guy rips off your clothes, and that’s the sex fantasy you’ve been having since you were twelve. Exactly the same.”

“Sometimes I vary it a little.”

“Which part?”

“What I’m wearing.”

*insert rimshot here*

I love this scene. I love it because Harry finds the dream fantasy so disappointing, and I love it because Sally doesn’t.

I love it because it perfectly captures the way real-life fantasies often consist of very little -- just one detail, one image or action that makes us go Unh, or Ooh, or whatever internal brain-noise you make when you see something or read something or think something that revs your engine.

And I love it because it also perfectly captures that when you have an audience, just describing the Unh moment will never cut it. The scene reminds me that as a writer of erotic romance, I not only have to provide the Unh moment, I also have to furnish the rest of the fantasy, or Harry will be disappointed.

The mechanics of writing sex scenes, or at least sexy ones, have been on my mind lately as I’ve been revising an 800-word sex scene from my second manuscript into a 2,700-word one. I tend to write short and then layer up later on. The dialogue comes first, and the actions, but when I’m deep in the first draft I have a hard time remembering to consider what the characters are thinking, and even more so what they are experiencing -- the sights, sounds, smells, tastes. My writing brain wants to skitter right over those details, because thinking them up, those just-so descriptions, is really hard work. And yet those are the details that so often matter in a novel. Those are the details that make the reader go Unh.

Take smell. In romance novels, smell is sexy. Women like the way men smell, and vice versa. So how do you write it? How does your hero smell?

He smells good.

Well, yeah. But nobody’s going to go Unh over that line.

He smells fantastic.

Keep trying.

Here’s where a lot of authors default to cologne, aftershave, or perfume:

She caught the scent of his cologne, and it made her pulse race.

The light scent of her perfume drove him wild.

Okay, fine, we’re getting somewhere, but not anywhere especially original or interesting. What does his cologne smell like? As a reader, I refuse to be titillated by such vague description, so as an author I try to do better.

Also, here’s where I confess that I can’t stand any artificial scents, so I find references to cologne and perfume and aftershave mildly repulsive. I’m constitutionally incapable of writing heroes and heroines who repulse me, so I have to seek alternative smells.

There are two directions to go from here: get more specific, or find an analogy/simile/synecdoche to do the work for you.

Getting more specific requires thought, but it can be worth the trouble. You can try pinpointing actual, recognizable scents from the fragrance panoply. Sandalwood (not my favorite, but very popular). Lemons. Mint. Pine. Wintergreen. Whatever floats your boat, really.

I think it works better, though, to look for smells that link to your character. What does your hero do? What is he like? Would it make a difference to how he smells? Karen Foley has a novel for Harlequin Blaze, Flyboy, in which the hero is an Air Force jet pilot. He comes home from work reeking of jet fuel, and the heroine practically passes out with lust. I loved that detail. It made me go Unh. It made me want to find a jet-fuel-smelling man and sniff him.

It also reminds me that smells don’t have to be exotic to be sexy. The smell of sawdust from fresh-cut lumber is one of my favorites. Find me a hero who smells like sawdust, piney and resinous, and I will melt for the guy. You can make him a handyman or a lumberyard foreman or a construction worker or whatever you want. Just make him smell good. (And give him a toolbelt while you’re at it.)

Also, you don’t always have to tell the truth. Ranchers probably smell like sweat and animals, dirt and manure. But if you want to get my attention, find me a rancher who smells like leather work gloves and rust. Sage crushed under a boot heel. Sun-warmed denim. Paint me a picture of the way he smells that tells me who he is, what he is, and why the heroine wants him.

Or give me somebody more ordinary. Give me an office guy in a suit who smells like coffee and clean cotton, like photocopier toner and the peppermints he keeps in a jar on his desk. Give me a painter who smells like linseed oil and turpentine. Now I’m paying attention.

You can even get fancy if you want to, take the reader on a little sense journey. I wrote this the other day:

He smelled like his soap, spicy and exotic, bringing to mind peppercorns and trade voyages and the mysteries of the East. But beneath that he smelled like a man, like himself, and she buried her nose in the crook of his neck and inhaled, wanting to taste him on the back of her tongue. Wanting to memorize this indelible marker of who he was.

I’m not claiming it’s poetry--it’s actually still a little sneaky and vague--but at least it’s not “He smelled great.” At least it’s not “He rips off my clothes.”

Of course, smell is just one sense. We’ve got a bunch of other ones. Guidelines for writing a good sexy scene often say you have to bring as many senses into the scene as possible, and it’s great advice. But I try to take it one step further and submit my descriptions to the Harry test. If Harry is disappointed, I figure my (future, theoretical) readers will be too.

Ruthie Knox figured out how to walk and read at the same time in the second grade, and she hasn’t looked up since. She spent her formative years hiding romance novels in her bedroom closet to avoid the merciless teasing of her brothers and imagining scenarios in which someone who looked remarkably like Daniel Day Lewis recognized her well-hidden sex appeal and rescued her from middle-class Midwestern obscurity. After graduating from Grinnell College with an English and history double major, she earned a Ph.D. in modern British history that she’s put to remarkably little use. These days, she writes contemporary romance in which witty, down-to-earth characters find each other irresistible in their pajamas, though she freely admits this has yet to happen to her. Perhaps she needs more exciting pajamas. Ruthie abhors an epilogue and insists a decent romance requires at least three good sex scenes. You can find her at