I promised a while ago to write a couple of posts on sex. Not how-to manuals… well, not about sex itself anyway. I want to talk more about sex on the page than between the sheets.
It’s often said that a lot of good writers write bad sex. I believe that’s more about how it’s received than their skill in writing. I’ll explain in a second.
I’m not entirely sure how my own sex scenes are viewed. That’s not to say I haven’t received feedback – I have, both positive and negative. Given the tiny proportion of my books that sex takes up, the amount of feedback is disproportionately large and sometimes, let’s say, emotional. In Wild Card, sex takes less than 3,000 words including build-up and cool-down, in a book that is nearly 172,000 words long. That’s about 1.7%. From the feedback, you’d think it was 10% or more. My sole 1-star review for Wild Card on Amazon is from someone who didn’t like the sex scene. S/he had read Sleight of Hand, Hidden Trump and Wild Card, that’s in excess of 420,000 words, and 3,000 killed it. (Another reader added a comment to the review which I enjoyed – thank you, Mike, if you’re reading this).
So, readers get upset by sex in books. Because they don’t want any. Because they do, but not like that. Because they do, but not those people. Because the words felt wrong. Because it was gratuitous (a favorite word for people who really don’t want any).
Given all this, why do writers still write sex scenes at all? Why not fade to black (FTB)?
This isn’t a manual of how to write sex scenes, but it’s an overview of what I grappled with, answering these questions. I hope it might be of use or interest.
For me, the answer to the question above:
- Sex is part of life, and one which almost all people have an interest in. To exclude it from a book seems perverse.
- I seek to exercise my readers full emotional spectrum!
- It is relevant to my world-building. Not all has been revealed yet, people. Not by a long way.
- The scene includes plot information which needs to be revealed in such a scene because only there is it in context.
- And FTB is the coward’s way out.
So, when I got down to producing the scene, my writing brain went through these hoops below. Mild spoilers ahead if you’ve not read Wild Card.
I’ve covered above some of my reasons for writing a sex scene.
Additionally, in a general sense, I have a feeling that my characters need rewards and complications. I felt that Amber and Jen making love fit that description well.
In a specific sense, why did I put it there? The pacing of the story required a pause for breath, a simple, physical and obvious bit of the plot after the complexity and obscurity of the confrontation with Kath and the near mental breakdown which followed. The following scenes were again high paced, and also required Amber to be caught out. What more reasonable reason might there be than this scene which shocked, lulled and distracted her?
Body parts and graphic descriptions
Although my style in naming of parts had been started with the scenes from Sleight of Hand and Hidden Trump, it’s worth revisiting here.
Cute names – no, no, no. Would just make people laugh.
Scientific names – worse! Nothing kills the buzz for me quicker than Latin names.
Four letter names – Well, better than the above, but what am I writing, porn? My gut feel is I would lose many more readers by using these names and graphic language.
So; I’m left with a style where I’m actually trying to get readers to write the scene in their own heads. I just hint and point. Any reader old enough to be reading the book should, I hope, know exactly what I mean even if I’m sometimes using a pronoun in place of a body part name.
I wanted the sex to flow naturally from the situation, and this helped me to achieve what I also wanted, which was more talk and emotion than actual sex.
I distrust the visual in sex scenes – too much looking feels porn-y to me.
It started as a bit of a joke to add in the blindfold in the Wild Card scene, but it worked for me.
I try and concentrate on the other senses; taste, scents, textures, sounds. And of course, being paranormal, I cheat a little with the sensations that you get through eukori.
There’s an old maxim for writers that you should write only what you know.
Riiiiiggght. Straight guy writes f/f love scene. All I can say is I did research. I read scenes written by women for that market, and I talked with readers who enjoy that niche. That helped cement and confirm my general style points.
How real should I get? My feeling is if you want real sex, do it. If you’re reading about it, you’re looking for an idealized version. That’s what I’m trying to deliver.
No, we’re not back to body parts. If I were writing erotica, I would spend more time on the sex. I’m not. All I’m trying to do is exercise your full emotional spectrum. So, once I have enough to get the reaction, it’s time to cool it back off.
With all that in mind, how did it turn out structurally?
I started with a deliberate tease. Amber believes Jen has thrown her out. Despair! I spent about 300 words on this.
Then when Amber realizes that it’s the exact opposite and Jen has moved Amber’s things into her room, there’s a section about 1,000 words which are still flirty and teasing, but I’m trying to build up the erotic tension slowly. Flirty finishes about the time they first kiss. From there on, as a reader, you should feel you know what’s going to happen next. Of course, in one of these books, what will happen next will be Basilikos launch an all-out assault. 🙂
All this time, I keep interrupting the increase in temperature and speed of action with little nervous jokes, because in Amber’s shoes, you’d be nervous too AND this was specific feedback from readers of f/f – that the build-up should feel less intense, more light-hearted than m/f. What do you think?
Thereafter, there are a mere 500 words from undressing to orgasm, and 500 words to the end of the chapter, which is the cool-down phase, even if it includes a little more sex.
The cool-down part was necessary for me to sneak some information in, just the same way they do in Game of Thrones. I understand these scenes are called info-humps. 🙂
And that was that. I wrote it and published it, and despite the volume of feedback, there hasn’t been a preponderance of negative reaction, despite everything…
Yes, there’s a point I’ve avoided in all of the above: why Jen and Amber? The majority of my readers would probably prefer a sex scene between Alex and Amber. The answer is quite complex, and isn’t entirely down to my chromosome makeup, as has been suggested. The topic is something for another time, as is a discussion of what might follow between the sheets in the next books.
As always, I’m very interested in your reactions.