Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Of steamy sex

I have just spent the afternoon agonising over my first really steamy sex scene, and discovering how very difficult it can be. It's not that I have any problems with the subject matter; I wouldn't have been able to do my job if I had. It's getting it right that's so tricky. I'm talking sex, not love, so no misty murmurings and subtle melding of bodies. This is raw sex; the real McCoy. And for the sake of the plot, it has to be fairly graphic. The protagonist is a tart. She knows what she's doing. The trouble is, I'm not sure that I do.

So what I'd like to know is, how do others feel? Do you write sex scenes, or just leave things at the glimpse-of-a-finely-turned-ankle stage? Do you find it difficult, and if so, how do you overcome it? How does a writer describe what's going on without reading like a medical textbook? Some time ago, I believe I quoted from the writer whose hero "nibbled his way all the way up her (the heroine's) torso". That's appalling, isn't it? (The word "torso" doesn't help.) I really don't want to fall into a trap like that.

15 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

This won't help much, but I blogged on this very topic a couple of years ago:

http://timstretton.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-to-write.html

We do have our own MNW experts on erotica but out of respect for their maidenly virtue I will let them identify themselves.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I've always thought about it quite mechanically. What's the point of the sex? Sleazy sex needs very different words to boring sex. I try to put across something important with the sex scene. I might use 'torso' if I was trying to show how one partner is objectifying the other, I suppose. Sorry. This is a rubbish answer.

Matt Curran said...

Without going all Swiss-Tony ("writing fiction is like making love to a beautiful woman...") I must admit to going about it the opposite of Aliya - I go for the mood and the pace of the writing, and hope that I don't fall into the trap of using jarring euphemisms.  For steamy sex, jokey references to male and female bits will make the scene humorous and a little farcical than steamy, while using anatomical terms makes it feel too clinical.  If it's really steamy, down-right dirty sex, then you can be a little crass but there is a line to cross, and if you do cross it then you might end up nominated for the bad-sex award.
 
There are so many fine-lines with regard to sex scenes (less if you're trying to chop someone's head off, hence why I find murder and mayhem easier to write!) that you can fall into cliché without realising it.  I've only written a couple myself, so my advice is quite limited I'm afraid...

Frances Garrood said...

Thanks, all. Actually Matt, the bad sex award nomination would at least be something, if rather different from the other MNW nominations. And Aliya - your comment was very helpful. I shall take out "penis" and insert "cock" instead. So to speak.

Len Tyler said...

No, I don't really do fictional sex - nor does my author-narrator, who comments (talking about one of his characters): "Fairfax is in late middle age and much embittered by his lack of promotion and by my inability to write him sex of any kind." Most of my own fictional characters probably feel this about me.

It seems to me that most sex in crime novels is likely to be entirely gratuitous - unless during the course of it you discover some vital clue - an interesting idea, that I'll work on for my next book.

I think Matt has hit the nail on the head though - most of us steer clear of too much explicit sex because it's too easy to write something that is funny for all the wrong reasons. One thing though - however bizarre the fictional sexual practices you come up with, you can be reasonably sure somebody reading it will have done it somewhere, some time ....

David Isaak said...

I like writing sex scenes--mostly because of the twin challenges of making them fresh while keeping them from being risible.

I don't like poorly written sex scenes. I don't like sex scenes where the wuthor suddenly loses the entire voice of the book and begins channeling someone else. I also don't care for sex scenes that are tossed in just because the author thinks the book ought to have a few.

On the other hand, I don't like it much when I sense the author has dodged a scene that ought to be there--sex or any other scene.

As far as how much sex description is given, it depends on the book. I don't think I've ever done a "fade to black," but I can imagine writing the sort of book where it might be exactly the right thing. That said, I have another scene that runs nearly all of a chapter--but it's in a comedy, so it doesn't go all purple-prosey.

I say just write it however it feels natural...and then go back later and give it a good read-through in context and see if it still seems like it works. Or if it belongs at all.

Frances Garrood said...

I'm not sure I'm trying to be funny, Len, or even bizarre. I just wanted to know what others think/do. I agree that in crime ficton sex rarely seems to play a part. But I'm fascinated at the idea of a vital clue turning up during sex, and you're probably just the person to write it (The Herring on the Suspender Belt?)

Aliya Whiteley said...

I want to read The Herring on the Suspender Belt.

Terri said...

Having grown up in the "buckle" of the Bible belt... writing sex scenes are especially difficult for me. In the beginning I tried the soft-focus approach but I reached a point where I felt totally unsatisfied and finally said "Screw it... 'cock' it is". I try to write the scene in context, so if it's romantic there are sweet, tender images. If it's animal lust, I work towards a particular rhythm, and if it's down and dirty, the language and setting is more coarse and descriptive. Having said that... I still have to slave over every scene I write because I can feel the weight of my family's disapproval with every sentence. A good many of my family are terribly disappointed in my book and my decision to include "sex". (it covers 3 generations... there's gotta be sex in there somewhere!)but even though there's a distinct chill at family reunions, I stick with my decision.

Frances Garrood said...

Good for you, Terri! One of my sons said, after reading my first book (which was pretty mild, sex-wise) "it's spooky reading sex scenes written by your mother". And maybe that's it. Your family (apart from patners) probably don't like to see you as a sexual being, with experience to draw on (I'm making assumptions here!). It skews their view of you. But as writers, we have to be honest and write what is true to that particular book. I'm sure that underneath it all, your family are very proud of you, as indeed they should be.

Terri said...

Thanks Frances. I'm still getting used to the fact that people have actually read my book. Before it came out my mom was upset and worried because she'd read the prologue on the Macmillan website and was very concernced that I'd used the word "damn" and "bastard". I thought "Oh Man am I in trouble when she reads the scene in the whorehouse!" Pathetic that even in my 50's I'm afraid of being grounded!

Faye L. Booth said...

Writing sex scenes just comes naturally to me; it never occurs to me not to just describe it as I'd describe anything else: looking through a filter made up of both my personal style and the character's way of seeing things. Molly (in Mirrors) is working-class-turned-middle, so she's down to earth enough to refer directly to body parts, but she still does so with polite terminology - 'cores' and 'organs' (I vehemently disagree with those who say the word 'organ' is euphemistic and silly - not if that's what your character would call it, it isn't!). The prostitute/porn model/erotica writer Lydia (Trades), of course, is cocks, cunts and fucking all the way. For a more reserved type, I'd probably look into using terms like 'him' and 'her' to refer to the organs in question ("he entered her" - now that's a coy euphemism, and even that can be justifiable depending on the character speaking). As you say, your character sounds like a call-a-spade-a-spade girl, so I'd probably go with very direct references. Mind you, the time I'm writing about definitely plays its part there - most people in the 19th C would have used euphemisms of varying degrees of coyness to refer to genitals, aside from medical people and the four-letter-word crowd.

I never feel awkward or uncomfortable writing about sex or even editing those scenes (I'm quite happy to have a discussion about penis synonyms with people in the trade) - the only time it starts to get weird is when I realise I can no longer avoid my family reading what I've written. They have mixed responses to the sexual content, really - most of them just don't mention it, and a couple I can tell are quite unsettled by it. It's never the ones you'd expect, though - my Nana wrote to me after Trades came out to say how much she'd enjoyed it, while my twentysomething brother (the youngest of the four of us) really seems to struggle with the oh-my-god-a-member-of-my-family-wrote-this-smut factor. (Prude!) I wouldn't think twice or change a WIP to make other people more comfortable, though - take it or leave it.

Frances Garrood said...

It's not a matter of feeling awkward or uncomfortable, Fays. I have no problems like that. I think the difficulty with writing about sex is just that; one is writing about sex, something few people do well (in my experience), and doing it in such a way that the words don't get in the way of the story.

That may sound odd, but I sometimes find, when I'm reading, that the way something is written holds me (and therefore the story) up; I pause and think 'why did s/he put it like that?' Which, of course, breaks the flow for me as the reader. I remember years ago reading a novel by a young and much-praised writer in which she said something like 'the sun rose like a poached egg', and all I could see from then on was this great poached egg in the sky; no sunrise at all (I gave up on that novel). So - it's trying to get it right; to get it to flow smoothly. That's what I'm working at (I've finished it now. I think.)

Faye L. Booth said...

Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that was your problem; I was just waffling based on some of the conversation that's been happening in this thread.

As for word choice, I think the issue is probably that our personal perceptions of things, from sex to sunrises, are so varied, we're bound to come across someone whose perceptions don't make sense to us, but to them they are accurate - presumably to someone out there, the sun does indeed look like a poached egg! Sex is so personal, too, that the effect is magnified, and one person's hottest fantasy becomes another bad sex award nominee.

David Isaak said...

Hunh. The whole "What will my family think?" aspect of this never even brushes past my consciousness when I'm writing. (But, then, if I worried about what my family thought, I would have led a very different life in all regards.)

I guess it does affect some people, though. John Fowles rewrote the sex in "The Magus" after his parents died. I've never understood whether he was worried he'd be spanked, or disowned, or what, but apparently he was concerned about something.