Monday, January 28, 2008

Sexing Things Up

As a romance novelist, you'd think I'd be comfortable with the idea of sex scenes. I actually dread writing them.

It's not that I don't like sex. I do. But, writing about various sexual acts is a vastly different animal than participating in them. When I wrote SF, I tended to write a very strong romantic element, but I'd do a discrete "pan to the left" when it came down to the actual business of gettin' it on. Now that my genre is romance, it's rather expected that I describe the action. After all, for some people, that's a large part of why they picked up the book in the first place.

I have a number of issues with sex scenes, and at least one of them *is* personal. The personal issue I have is that for some reason I'm one of those people who blushes easily. Luckily, my partner finds this charming, but it makes the writing out of the nitty-gritty more difficult. I'm grateful that I know how to touch type, because I actually have to look away from the screen while I'm typing certain events. Even though I've participated in a "slash slam," I had to have a stunt reader yell out words that I just couldn't say....

The other reasons are slightly more writerly. As Kelly can tell you, I work very hard to keep my novels moving forward -- that is to say, I resist any scene that doesn't serve the plot in some key way. And, I honestly think that the best sex scenes are anything but gratuitous. I read a great on-line resource about writing sex scenes that talked about this (...this isn't it, I couldn't find the original, but it's a good resource anyway: 20 Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes... Naomi, do you remember the one you recommended?) and I was very impressed that the author of the article had the same concerns I did about gratuitousness. She suggested that, at the very least, a good sex scene should reveal something new about your characters.

The other issue I have is labeling. What do you call everything? We've all read those horrible novels where there's a lot of "throbbing manhood" and the like. Nothing kicks me out of the moment more than nomenclature that's either too harsh and crude or too purplish in its prose. So, you have to find the words that fit, and, frankly, we all know the proper terms sound awfully clinical in a moment of passion. I've found terms that work for me, but they're not perfect.

Plus, there' the tricky business of preferences. I'm not talking about one's orientaion (although for me that's certainly a consideration,) but, like, what turns you on. I'm often worried that the stuff that turns me on, well, either isn't printable, or would bore the heck out of the majority of my readers. Also, I've discovered having run a few sex scenes through my critique group there's the issue of what consititues a sexual act for some readers. I've written long involved scenes that included nakedness, kissing, and things I consider "the deed" only to have my readers say, "Uh, but there was no SEX." (Turns out I forgot a major male organ... see above issue with orientation.)

So, what do you do about sexing things up? Do you write sex scenes? What's your opinion of them? Any advice?


Anonymous said...

I do the same thing in my writing. I look away politely when things get physical. My partner says it is a weakness and she is probably right. So I decided, the next time my characters are ready to do the deed . . .I am going to make HER write the scene. I figure either I will learn something or else she will. LOL.

Anonymous said...

I still get embarrassed and giggly - just like a kid. LOL It's particularly difficult when I'm writing a character I'm particularly close to...

Erik Buchanan said...

I had a sex scene in Small Magics, but in the course of moving from one draft to another, it became inappropriate (the relationship between the two characters went from being 3 months long to 3 weeks and given that they're both teenagers, my reading group found it a bit trashy).

I don't have much difficulty writing sex scenes if they're the climax (heh-heh) of a chapter or a defining moment for the characters. But for the most part I find that while they are fun to read they don't add to the plot. Of course, I'm writing fantasy, not romance.

So I, too, politely look away and then give you hints of what they were doing i.e. "Reluctantly they moved their mouths and hands from each others mouths and bodies."

Kelly Swails said...

So far my sex scenes have been vague and straightforward and a paragraph or two in length. No "insert tab A into slot B" business.

As for terminology, I think that wholly depends on the style of the book and the characters involved. If it's a historical romance, flowery language. Trashy romance, crude language. Science fiction, try using computer terms. Ask yourself what your character would call a penis--would she say penis? Cock? Genitals ? Privates?

I agree that sex scenes should be more than just sex. The readers can glean a lot about the characters by watching how they characters interact--do they have trust issues? Are they kinky? Are they uptight?

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Yeah, sex scenes are tricky. I wrote my first one a couple of months ago, and I had a lot of trouble with the language. It was really tricky to find words that weren’t crude, medical, or insanely vague. I think I did all right, but I’ve yet to revise.

Nicole Lorenz said...

There's a definite pattern when I write sex scenes: write sentence. Blush and pretend to be doing other things. Write another sentence. Repeat.

The majority of my characters are like, "Hey! A little privacy here, please?" when they get it on, though, so I don't spend a lot of time blushing.

Naomi said...

I vividly remember the essay I sent you, but I can't remember enough of the right details to dig it up again.

Tim Susman said...

Euphemisms are the worst. Well, the best AND the worst. The cruder ones take you out of the story (unless the narrative voice fits them), and the more delicate ones make the reader giggle. I read one scene that had "meat" as a male euphemism and I can advise you, should you be considering that, that it does not work at all.

Over at Sofawolf, we have a writer, Kyell Gold, who does a lot of romance stuff with explicit scenes (mostly gay, though the flip side of yours) and has actually won a couple awards for his stories. Now, the characters are anthro animals 'cause that's what we publish, but I asked him about your question, and he said, "Find and read a lot of bad sex scenes. For me, that not only took away a lot of the embarrassment of writing my own (hey, everyone else is doing it), but also fired me up to write a better one."

(You can find his journal at if you want. :)

sexy said...