Rewriting The Literary Kiss

One of the things I love about writing is that you never know where it’s going to take you. Or sometimes you do know. You may even have it mapped out as in: write that scene, the one you’ve been putting off? DO IT now. In some cases it’s a rewrite. As much as I like the discipline of a rewrite there are times I have little desire to groom the rawness of earlier draft. Take a scene between lovers? I just want to let them get on with the way they did first time around, full of flaws and awkwardness, on the other hand I don’t want to be mashing their heads together like some authorial version of playing dolls.

Legend kissing, Romeo and Juliet

Legend kissing, Romeo and Juliet

The scene? A kiss. Just two people kissing. So, what’s the big deal? Couldn’t you just write ‘…and so they kissed…’ and be done with it? Not really. The kiss in real life may be incidental but in fiction it’s a device. It’s got to push the action on, be a defining moment. You’ve got to get the essence of what that kiss is about, why it needs mentioning at all? A fictional kiss can, in the end, be quite a cerebral thing, an out-of-body experience for the protagonist as much as for the author as the narrative strives to impose the message on the moment and balance it with any kind of natural beauty (or as needs be, repulsion) and integrity, the integrity being? That you believe in that kiss, experience it, involve yourself in the paradigm shift that comes from it. Actually, writing a kiss can leave you quite breathless.

Watermark Book Cover

Sean O’Reilly’s breathtaking book ‘Watermark’ orbits on a kiss

Literary kisses are wonderfully varied because literary characters are necessarily honed to see things a certain way.Take Humbert’s almost forensic kiss with Lolita ‘not daring really to kiss her, I touched her hot, opening lips with the utmost piety, tiny sips, nothing salacious.’ or Romeo’s heated plea to Juliet ‘Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.’ Or take Sean O’Reilly’s novel Watermark, a whole erotic world built on an illicit kiss that shuttles his protagonist Veronica on an aching journey of desire, ecstasy and despair ‘I kissed you and you learnt nothing from it. I kissed you for joy and you twisted it into an ugly thing. I kissed you and it should have disappeared in an instant, a beautiful frail thing to hold up to the light but you caught it and pinned it down and wanted to show it off.’

Cameron creates a whole night bathed in a kiss

Cameron creates a whole night bathed in a kiss

The book I’ve just finished by debut author Janet E. Cameron Cinnamon Toast And The End of the World has a gripping kiss between two male gay teenagers. ‘How did it feel?’ the smooch deprived Stephen Shulevitz asks. ‘Picture a dark empty house in the winter. Then somebody goes walking through the rooms switching on every single light, basement to attic one by one, until it’s so bright you can hardly stand it. It felt like that.’ Respect. Instead of baulking at the challenge Cameron creates a whole night bathed in this kiss because she knows this is necessary for the character (and therefore the story) to develop. Job done. But enough of reading about it, time to do the writing. Who knows where it will take me? But I’m hoping for some breathlessness alongside some retained awkwardness from the previous draft – as in life no kiss is truly perfect, it’s the flaw that makes it sing.

Listen to Sean O’Reilly discussing Watermark on The Parlour Review

More info on Janet E. Cameron’s book on her website

7 thoughts on “Rewriting The Literary Kiss

  1. I LOVE this! Just reading along innocently, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s right about how important those moment are, hmm, wonder if I actually got that kissing scene at the party right…’ And there it was! Thank you so much!

  2. Hey there, only replying now, forgive me! Well done on the book, I got taken along with Stephen’s journey and anyone who has forgotten what it was like being a teenager might read this to remind themselves how hard it was sometimes to simply be yourself. Great coming of age read.

  3. There is nothing in the world more … dynamite (as my grandmother used to say!)… than a good kiss. Respect indeed to Sean O’Reilly for that kiss… and to you for this post. Really enjoyed it… have been thinking of kisses since !

  4. this was pretty interesting and something i had never actually thought about. i think i would be too embarrassed to ever write fictionally about a kiss. i think none of my potential characters will ever kiss. what a long passionless life for all of them. nice post :-)

    • Thanks Stephen, well you never know, long and passionless on the outside maybe, but intense perhaps behind the scenes! Reading Speak Memory by Nabokov at the moment, so far no kisses but such passion for every little detail about a pane of glass or an illustrated book from childhood and I love that, but I do believe he’s about to fall in love soon.

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