Writing sex!

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.

Relevance
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.

Context
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.

Senses
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.

Content
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.

Reality
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.

How long
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.

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first book, 'Sleight of Hand' is available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/Sa0D3n

20 responses to “Writing sex!”

  1. Rachel says :

    Of course we are looking forward to an Alex and Amber scene!!!! I thought the f/f was very tastefully done and I could’ve read twice as much and enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Jason says :

    Very nice post Mark, I enjoy hearing about your craft and I wondered about writing a F/F scene as a guy, I guess like anything you research, research, and research. It has been awhile since I read this but if I remember the book correctly I really liked the set up of moving her things into the room and I remember thinking finally they get to grow together! I disagree with you a little bit about realism vs idealism, I think there needs to be a little bit of that awkwardness/fumbling which is often part of real life even with longtime partners, everything does not just perfectly happen for sure, but I think your setup of the scene covers the realistic part as initially we are often confused in our relationships.

    One more comment; Why do people get more invested in that 1.7 percent? Because it is IMPORTANT, it is the most giving intimate thing two or more human beings can do together. I believe you give a piece of yourself every time you share your body that way, otherwise it is just physical stimulation/response. But it should not be just that, it is about souls, hearts, spirit, love, and all those things we hope for but can’t hold onto any other way.

    As far as overall, be true to the person you write about in sex scene, nothing is stranger than being out of character in between the sheets action, for example the lightheartedness was great because it was Amber.

    Please keep writing your wonderful books and good luck to your daughter.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Thank you Jason. It was certainly the scene I worried about most. Yes, there’s a certain amount of realism that must come in – awkwardness, especially for Amber in this scenario.
      And yes, this love is a far bigger part of them than the amount of words given to it in the text.

      Daughter says thank you! She’s got a break before more filming.

  3. Robert says :

    Very interesting post. On your point about WHY Jen and Amber … it seemed pretty obvious that it had to happen at some point (and the point where it hapened seemed natural).
    You’d already been leading up to it in the first two books, Alex and Amber had already had one or two sex scenes (again in the first couple of books), so NOT having a Jen/Amber scene really would have seemed like a cop-out at this point.
    If Amber is to have as deep a relationship with Jen as with Alex (or as she obviously wanted to), then sex would naturally have to be part of that.
    The word counts are really interesting. Pacing is … tricky. Not just for sex scenes but for everything.

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Yes, no one could sensibly claim I didn’t signpost it was going to happen in the previous books.

      The question I have been asked is why did I set up the series with this kind of a triangle in the first place.
      Part of the answer is that one of my objectives was to take all the familiar UF characteristics, including the triangle, and portray it a different way. Anyway, that’s another topic for another post.

      Recap of approximate word counts:
      RD 40k (+ 9k preview of SoH)
      SoH 120k
      HT 135k
      WC 172k

      I’m not intending to write longer and longer books! Wild Card was complex because I had to handle human, Athanate and Were threads all tangled together. I think it’s given me the groundwork to use as a base so that introducing more Adept threads is less complex. All of which means Cool Hand is expected to be more like the length of SoH than WC.

      • Robert says :

        Asking why you chose to have a triangle that included f/f sexuality is a bit like asking “why did you make vampires Athanate and not Bram Stoker type antagonists.” Or sparkly, come to that. i.e. Baffling, completely pointless and all about authorial choice.
        It’s what makes a new, interesting read … well, new and interesting, rather than generic, trite and boring.

        Anyway, as you point out sex is definitely a hot button issue. Having moved to the States from England 14 years ago (and living in North Florida – which is kind of like Southern Georgia), I still can’t quite believe how hung up people get. My only issue with writing sex scenes is that I then find it quite difficult to hand it over to my friends to read!

        As someone else posted, as long as you write what is important and interesting to you, someone will enjoy reading it!

  4. soireadthisbooktoday says :

    Hey Mark! Beautiful post, as always, but especially this one. You are right, people are really weird about sex, whether they want it or not. And there are way too many people (especially women) who focus only on that one aspect of books rather than the books themselves. I have read some wonderful books which got bad reviews because all the reader was focused on was whether or not the characters wound up in relationships. I know that “paranormal romance” is all about the “nookie” but to try to force that aspect into every fantasy novel (or any other novel for that matter) is perverse and an insult to the author. The same with the “no nookie” brigade.

    Your character development is wonderful, and the relationship between Amber and Jen is vital to the storyline, not just “gratuitous,” though I will admit there are a LOT of books out there that are indeed “gratuitous” in the whole sex thing – – – but then, that is what the book is supposed to be about, so it isn’t truly “gratuitous” after all, is it?

    There really isn’t anything that you can do about the naysayers of either sort. How does that old trope go, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” – and you don’t want to – – – if you wrote any differently those of us who love your writing would be disappointed – and the rest of those people who don’t love your choices would be vindicated in their sour behaviour.

    You just keep doing what you are doing and we will keep loving what you do!

    😉

    • Mark Henwick says :

      I have a short story (in the Athanate world, but not involving any of the existing characters) which I intend publishing in an anthology this year with 5 other great UF writers, in which sex is an *integral* and *essential* part of the plot. I’ll still get someone telling me it’s gratuitous 🙂
      I’ll post about this separately.

      I didn’t want to come over as defensive when writing this post about sex on the page. As with all criticism, in reviews, emails, or posts, I look it over and see if there’s anything I can take on board, then I discard the rest.

      The reader whose review I quoted has got something to say – that f/f sex prevented him/her from continuing with the series. I knew there would be some that took this position when I decided that I was going to include it. There’s nothing more I can learn from what was said, but the fact that there’s only one review taking this stand, I take to indicate that only a small percentage would drop out. (Others have said they don’t like f/f or prefer m/f, and that’s fine).

      • soireadthisbooktoday says :

        Whatever one says, or does, there are always going to be “those” who don’t like it. f’/f, m/m, mixed – even m/f. Can’t please all of the people all of the time and you wouldn’t want to if you could.

        Even bad reviews can often tell us something – of course some of them are just bitter, LOL.

        You will have to send info on the anthology when you get it. Sounds fun!

  5. soireadthisbooktoday says :

    Reblogged this on So, I Read This Book Today and commented:
    Mark Henwick is one of my favorite authors. And, as always, he makes exceptional points about a topic that pushes a lot of people’s buttons. And he does it beautifully.

  6. Daniel Dobbelstein says :

    Hello Mark,

    As for the question about the protagonists in WC, it seemed clear, for one thing in SOH Amber has a scene with Alex, and in HT as well, due to her taking the emotions of Jen in the and of HT, she wasn’t able to stay close to Alex in that sense.
    Its a logical followup and it was hinted at and teased at more then once in the books. I also believe the timing for the scene is essential and just right, as well as the tasteful description.
    I could still imagine that at some point something might happen between Bian and Amber as well, Bian has pushed in that direction hard enough. Though you probably already thought more about the complications that would summon, then i did.
    I love the way you described all of those scenes, Both between Jen and Amber, and between Alex and Amber.

    Tastefully allowing your readers imagination to create pictures without becoming, as you call it, porn-y… i love that term.
    The wide range of reactions, i can imagine come from our societies, and backgrounds.
    Many americans do not want to speak about it, its tabuized, way more then in the european countries. Some might not want to read about it at all either, though i bet there is enough that claim they do not want to read it… and on the other hand have read the scene in question over and over and over again.

    Humans are like that.

    Greetings from germany
    Daniel

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Yes, Daniel, as they say “different strokes for different folks”.

      The German sales for the translation have slowed 😦 . I must think about how to promote DvH in Germany.

      Where do you personally get recommendations from? Just Amazon or are there sites like Goodreads which concentrate on the German speaking market?

      • Daniel Dobbelstein says :

        Since i hate reading translations… i must sadly admit, that i have no clue, since most books i read are in english

  7. XK says :

    Very interesting! For my part, writing a sex scene is undeniably daunting (I have a beta reader who has been pestering me for one for three books now), and I really appreciate the way you broke down yours.

    I also thought the actual scene was very well done! And both my wife and I are more interested in the Jen/Amber pairing than Jen/Alex anyway, (perhaps because there are an awful lot of m/f romances in urban fantasy)

  8. ptitelau says :

    Hi,

    I found your books thanks to a August special from Amazon, the free books promotion. Took the opportunity to download plenty of romance or paranormal or whatever caught my fancy that I would never have looked into.
    It was really great not to feel guilty if the book turned out to be awful and to get to find gems like your books.
    (that’s my feedback to your other post).
    About sex scenes, you had given us plenty of warning about Jen and Amber, no one should have claimed to be surprised about what happened (I went to have a look at the 1* review). I liked the scene, it felt natural and very discreet, it was really normal for it to take place at that time.
    I had no idea you were so precise about the word count, it doesn’t show although I find your precision a bit surprising.

    And most importantly, I wanted to tell you I really loved the 3 books (haven’t bought the prequel, not sure I’m going to) and I look forward to reading the rest.
    To me Amber is a bit like that episode in Buffy where she’s in an asylum and you don’t know what the reality is: those voices she hears in her head… ;op

    Hello from France,

    Laurence

    • Mark Henwick says :

      Thank you Laurence!

      I’m delighted to hear from France. When I started writing and I was daydreaming about translations (and movie deals, and the sort of things you dream about to inspire you to write), I thought my first translation would be to French. However, Germany has bought nearly 20 times more of the Bite Back books than France! Maybe Bian’s Tale will change this, because it’s so bound up with France in the Far East for the first few books. As I said in an earlier post, Vietnam is not explored much in French literature/art. I’ve read and watched L’Amant and Indochine. I also tried to read The Sea Wall, Victorine and others, but most of the background I’ve extracted has been from English writers writing about French Indochina. Very strange. Arguments about colonialism aside, there is a wonderful exotic texture to 19th Century Indochina. There’s also plenty of conflict and ambiguity – rich soil for novels!

      Thanks also for the feedback about the Amazon promotion – I have to say they tell me next to nothing about this sort of thing!

      The word count is not something I think about much when I’m actually writing – more for the planning stage and then afterwards to analyse what I’ve written. If it’s of interest, I will write a post about it.

      I’m a fan of Joss Whedon too! Those voices in Amber’s head… keep reading. 🙂

      • ptitelau says :

        Thanks for your comments.

        Actually France is completely mum on Indochine, etc… You simply don’t hear about it, as if it had never happened. So I don’t think that Bian’s tale will raise more interest from France than your other stories, because from what I can see in my circle of friends and family, there is no awareness about France’s past presence in Asia. I think that the war with Algeria, being so close to France, just on the other side of the “river” (that the Mediterranean sea is) was so damaging to the French psyche that there was not place for something that happened so far from us. And that’s just talking about colonialism. History highlights which are very present in the French collective psyche are World War II and the presence of the US, the rebuilding of the country afterward and so forth.

        If you were to take a French Survey of what important dates the French remembers, you would be surprised.
        There is : 1968 – “sous les pavés la plage”, 1962 Algeria’s independence, the whole period with and without Charles de Gaulle, WW2, 1789: France’s independence, then 1515 Marignan’s battle and that’s about it.

        Granted, my knowledge of history isn’t great, but Indochine is mostly known as a French pop/rock band (1st result with google) which is a pity.

        Sorry for this long post, but you got me thinking about it and puzzling out loud why we are not more aware of that time and place.
        (FYI, I’m 42 years old, I think that the younger generation is worse than me in that regard).

        ;op My 2 cents!

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