Sex in fiction

It cracks me up, how my blog posts about sex always turn out to be my Most Viewed. WordPress has even put a little yellow trophy on the stats page, near my post ‘The Unexpurgated Version’! So I will indulge you, my delightfully horny readers, by writing about it today, and we’ll see how the stats play out. I don’t want you all to think I’m turning into the Church lady of fiction, so this seems a good time for the sex talk. You better sit down.

Actually I’m going to write about how not to write about writing about sex. A few months ago, there was a PW online article by a so-called literary writer who I won’t identify, but there was her picture, showing a woman of a certain age displaying a deliberately casual-sexy sort of air, with long just-out-of-bed-hair and a carelessly provocative neckline. Female writers always have this added pressure (from traditional publishers and media) to look alluring and come-hither-ish in their author’s photo, as if to say, doesn’t this book make you want to have sex with me? Male writers, for the most part, don’t have to worry about physical attractiveness being necessary for marketing and promotion plans.

This article purported to discuss, in a serious way, the use of sex in fiction. Instead it was a few paragraphs of literary name-dropping, famous and even revered writers who could handle a steamy bit of prose; and then she goes on to quote from her own work, in an illustrative way, except every other word in her excerpt was the F word. Now, the F word, even if it literally means the down and dirty act of copulation, is not a sexy or particularly enlightening word. And used repetitively, it’s just dumb. Using it too much only rouses the Amazon porn-bots, which gets you kicked into the wrong category—you don’t want that kind of hell. And then I thought, Holy shit! (Note: Just one profanity, used sparingly) This is no ‘how-to’ guide: This gal is using the topic to market and promote her own work. Even sadder was the long list of commenters advertising their own work beneath it. *Sigh* Writers! Take a step back from the nonstop promotion and let your audience find you themselves! And forget the Spanx and the push-up bra for the cover photo. Just do what I do, and don’t have one (a cover photo, or a push-up bra. I do have Spanx, however, for when I have to venture out to readings). Let your readers imagine what you look like, and they’ll probably come up with a far better image than the actual you.

I decided that if this other author couldn’t write instructively about using sex in your novel, then I will. After all, I’m an expert; Amazon once classified my book as Erotica, right? Actually I’m not, and as a good Catholic wife and mother, I shouldn’t be good at it; but I confess that I do really enjoy writing a vigorous erotic scene, perhaps a lot more than I should. I will slap you, if, at a reading, you ask me if I act out the scenes  before writing them. (Yes, I have been asked this in the past, by people who should know better.) There is this thing called ‘imagination.’ And that’s all you need to write a sex scene: You don’t even need to have much experience, or huge quantities of downloaded porn, only that very vivid imagination, which come to think of it, will help you write your novel, too!

A certain ease with bodily functions helps, as does a high comfort level with the idea of sex in general—if you have, what we called in the ‘60s, ‘hang-ups’ about the act, you’ll struggle with it. Better to put in the dot-dot-dot and fade to black.  Having a reasonably strong libido helps, too, but you have to be able to control it and channel it into your work. You might be all hot and bothered at the computer, but you should be to be clearheaded enough to figure out why you’re putting in a sex scene, otherwise a mean reviewer might castigate you for ‘use of gratuitous sex.’ (I speak from experience) It’s NOT to amuse and titillate your readers; otherwise it become porn, and if you want to write in that genre, then fine. But the sex in that category isn’t really real or authentic: It’s always great sex, with a positive spin, damned good but unrealistic fornication which always comes off successfully and breathtakingly. But in real life—from whence we draw the best fiction—sex isn’t always so great. Sometimes it’s painful or awful, and sometimes someone isn’t able to, you know, um…But these are important clues to your characters, their psyche and motivation. It shows the level of closeness between characters (or lack of it), and the quality and nature of that relationship. An honest description of that coupling helps round out the people in your novel, just as a serious illnesss or tragedy can illuminate a character’s basic humanity and shortcomings. I once had an idiot workshop director who declared “Sex always makes your characters more human.” More human…than what, animals? Isn’t sex supposed to be a kind of animal thing? I think sex makes us a little less human, and that’s not a bad thing.  How your characters react to sex, how they perform, indeed how they fall into it in the first place, helps define them and make them authentic. Not ‘more human.’

And keep in mind, the most powerful part of the sex scene is not the orgasm. That’s actually kind of anti-climactic (sorry, couldn’t resist) and as soon as that happens, boom, it’s all over. The most crucial part of the sex scene comes at the beginning—it’s what I call the ‘quickening,’ when two people (they don’t even have to be touching) come to realize they are going to connect. Right NOW. It’s when mild exploration or interest suddenly gels into serious arousal, and the bottom half of the body takes over and overwhelms the mind. Even in the most humdrum encounters (i.e., married sex) there is a kind of mild fright, or alarm, involved, but a delicious fright, the frisson you feel watching a good horror movie, or even flying in a small plane. There might be risk, danger involved, but damned if you’re going to do it anyway…

And when you write that intimate scene, you don’t want to be overly internal about it—that is, having your character thinking about it, thinking about how they feel—but give only external clues, describing the action in honest terms. I know I broke that rule in The Novice Master, but I think first sex, losing your virginity, is a special case. And be honest: Sex is often messy, drippy, awkward business, not always glorious. But the awkwardness can be arousing, too, because you know where it’s all headed. Draw it out a bit, don’t just have them go at it. Be real! Thighs, breasts, tangled limbs, taut muscles… But don’t be too explicit or clinical, because that’s not graceful writing. You may use a touch of the clinical, a key spine-tingling word or phrase, just to poke and provoke the reader, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to turn your reader into a crass voyeur, but more of what that crazy old writer Anais Nin would call ‘a spy in the house of love.’ I think this adds to the intimacy of a book, and enhances the reading experience. Some readers will reject this; many feel offended to come across such passages, and there are people who do not want to be sexually aroused while reading a book. But you can’t worry about appeasing those readers, who have a right to their feelings. Only be reassured that the majority of your audience will have no problem with it at all. They may even demand it!

Oh, and don’t think you can make a living as an erotic writer. I’m sorry to tell you that market is oversaturated, and most sex writers are making squat (according to the writer forums). So don’t be suggesting it to me as a possible lucrative second career (Yes, I’m talking to a certain husband now.)

Feel free to leave comments under an assumed name. Or written furtively on scraps of paper, in a plain brown paper bag, left on my front steps…

4 thoughts on “Sex in fiction

  1. I’m curious about how you feel about reviews on Amazon and Goodreads synopsis vs. review vs. book report. I’m tired of reading book reports (so third grade) and wonder how a writer feels about how readers react in writing to their work.


    1. I definitely prefer long old-school reviews which provide an assessment and honest criticism of a work. Those are the kind of reviews I like to read, write, and as an author receive, even if they’re critical and uncomfortable to read. But they show, at least, the reviewer gave the book some thought. I have mixed feelings about the book-review type, although they serve a purpose, I guess, in describing a particular type of story a reader might choose to buy. I see a lot of reviewers–both professional and amateur-shying away from judging a book’s quality, maybe out of a lack of confidence about their reviewing skills. What I dislike most are those dumb stars! They are really meaningless and essentially tell a reader nothing.


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