Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Love buds ... or the icky business of writing sex

Merely Players has a sex scene.

We're not talking erotica here, just a romantic induction into the arts of l'amour which plays a crucial part in moving the action on. All good so far.

But how do you write the damn thing?

Writing sex scenes is hard. Not hard in an engorged, purple-headed soldier sort of way. Just difficult. How do you get down and dirty and remain consistent with the tone of your novel? How do you bring romance to the situation without making it hopelessly euphemistic? How do you add a touch of eroticism without turning into a Playboy short story contest?

Of course, depending on what style of writing you're doing you might want to be hopelessly euphemistic or spicily hardcore. But I don't want to be either. My work in progress is a historical romance with a relatively straight-talking heroine. I want the scene to have some steam - but I want it to play a part in developing my characters too. It's especially important to my heroine - it's the moment she jettisons the mantle of her inherited values and becomes her own woman. Or it's supposed to be anyway.

In the first draft, I plunged straight in and tried to write a scene in my head that didn't make me wince too much. It wasn't great and it was remarkably brief - which doesn't say much for the hero's staying powers. I sat back and looked at it. Some authors spend pages on one sex scene and it works. The reader is entranced by the seduction and stirred by the moment. I knew I had to go back to the drawing board.

At the end of the process I decided there were three main steps in writing sex:

1. The diagram. No, not literally, metaphorically. This is a recording of the nuts and bolts of the mechanics of what is going on. I'm reminded of a scene in the televisation of Diary of a Call Girl, which has the eponymous call girl's literary agent pointing out that for the scene she has written to work, the bloke must have had three hands. Oh yes.

So this bit is important. It's the skeleton on which the romance, erotica and characteristation will hang.

2. The language. This is where you put your flag in the sand. Are you a love bud or a clitoris fan? Both make me wince, incidentally, but each to his own. This is tough. The History Hoydens make a great point about sex language in historical romance, reminding us that most heroines of regency romance wouldn't have know the proper name for their body parts. So this, in fact, is a time to get deep in your point of view (POV).

What would your lady have named her own body parts? A scene from a lady's POV might therefore be quite different from a scene written from a man's POV. Your sex scene then should define the scenario from your character's perspective.

3. The characters. Having written my sex scene, I changed it quite a bit. I re-read it and noted the parts which my heroine just wouldn't do and my hero just wouldn't say. I built in something about her qualms and her motivations and I matched her actions to her feelings. Suddenly the scene seemed to make sense - it worked in the context of the story, instead of standing out like a sore thumb. Getting there....

After these three steps, I would run two tests:

1. The ickiness test. I got my critique partner to flag up the sentences she considered too much information and I reviewed each one. In many cases it was where the skeleton had overtaken the POV or I got overcome by purple-prose-a-virus or ick-blindness e.g. "Warm liquid spilled from her like tears".

2. The boredom test. If you re-read your own sex scene and find yourself skim reading - that's not good. It probably means you haven't got deep into your character's POV and that the scene isn't meaningful. Or that in an excess of mortification you've fallen back on tried and tested euphemisms that mean nothing to you.

I've done both, been bored by both. I think I'm getting better.

How do you approach the herculean task of writing a good sex scene? Thoughts, views and even better, advice, would be much appreciated!

For inspiration and advice, check out these links:

The Difficulties of Writing Really Old Erotica by Tracy Cooper Posey

Love Scenes and Details by the History Hoydens

20 Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes
by Karen Wiesner

Eloisa James on the complications of Bringing Past Sex Back to Life.

Thanks to the recommendation from the super smart Felicia Lind below, I just downloaded Stacia Kane's Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet - it's superb! Highly recommended.


Andrea said...

I love this post.

You don't know how many times I have referred to that particular line over the last couple of days. My husband and I have been hooting over it!

There are amazing euphemisms in sex scenes. I think my favourites are the many names for the 'purple headed soldier'as you put it, 'love root' being the best!

Miss Betty said...

Did you ever check out How To Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet by author Stacia Kane? It was originally a series on her blog (and can still be read there - http://www.staciakane.net/tag/be-a-sex-writing-strumpet/ ) but it's also available on Kindle etc.

It's the best advice I can give on writing sex anyway!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Oooh what a fun and juicy subject. :D I write YA, but that said, I do have "sex scenes" on occasion. Did I mention I write edgy YA? I never use what I consider gratuitous material, and I only do what's important for the story and characters, but I don't shy away from it either. I find those scenes can be fun to write, but mortifying when it's time for the crit group to go over them... I think you point about being true to the characters is the most important thing to remember.

Meg McNulty said...

Love root has got to rate quite highly!

Thanks for the tip Felicia - I've never come across Stacia Kane's blog - I'll head right over and take a look. Sounds very timely.

Lisa, edgy YA is surely the best kind! Isn't exploring sexuality most adolescents main hobby anyway? I'm from the Judy Blume generation - a whole wave of youngsters who got their early sex education from within the pages of Forever. And very grateful for it we were too!