History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 June 2011

Are We Having Sex Yet? More on a Favorite Topic

So sorry to have missed Leslie's last post about writing sex. I've been away from the web for the most part, trying to get get a little ahead on my writing while prepare to head east, first to stop briefly at the Romance Writers of America National Conference in NY and then -- big smile -- to head down to Baltimore for my son's wedding.

But when I'm not being a proud, ecstatic Jewish mother of the groom and a kvelling recent grandma (there's a complicated contemporary story here, of course), I'm happy and proud to be called a "master (or mistress) of the powerfully erotic sex scene." Thanks, Leslie, and thanks too, since I missed the discussion, for giving me the topic for this post, which is a more extensive take on how I do it.

First and foremost by spending an inordinate amount of time and effort on it. Not so much searching for the right words for particular acts or body parts (though that's tricky, particularly in a historical setting), but much more often doing something like looking for the right two-syllable word for "put" or "grasp," or even "touch," let's say, as the rhythm of the sentence, the paragraph, the scene requires.

Because isn't what that's about? Somehow figuring a way to communicate, through those little black marks on the page, the strange experience of being beyond language, or perhaps of being close to the root of expression and communication? Somehow extracting a sense of all that, through a series of sounds and meanings -- and even pauses for breath -- in the reader's mind.

Somehow it's about the amazing business of expressing the shifting of characters' point of view through time and space -- and no, I don't worry about head-hopping in a sex scene, hell, for me that's the point: how to make clear verbal sense of what goes on as a lover perceives what she's feeling and what he's feeling at the same time -- what she knows when, what she wants to make happen next or perhaps is moved to do right now -- and what, sometimes, finally, she's just too far-gone and grateful and greedy to care about. So the reader can't ever forget there are two separate beings here being less separate than any other experience allows.

It's all about the contending and coalescing of separate selves -- take one set of perceptions and don't just double it, square it. And don't forget to vary your writerly focal length as you move through time, to help the reader follow the dance of many steps and possibly, if you're lucky (and my characters often are), a step you've never tried before, from as many points of view as it takes. You want it as devilishly, angelically surprising and multifaceted as sometimes it can be in life -- and yet in a clear sequence that the reader can take in (and at best, be in two skins besides her own).

To imagine, to feel, the complexity of human interaction and to make it verbally explicable. When you say it that way you realize that it's just writing, and that it takes everything that good writing takes. Which is to say it's hard.

But it's not hard in the way that I often hear romance authors talking about, as though they've done all that sacrificial labor in a kind of nunnish obeisance to The Story and at great cost to themselves. Oh, come on.

As my brilliant friend Susie Bright puts it in her highly recommended How to Write a Dirty Story, "a good sex scene is one that arouses its author." Which is maybe not exactly ladylike or professional to admit -- and which might bother some people to hear, that somebody actually got hot writing what you got hot reading. But I think it's how it works.

Leaving for the last the best, which kept me going for years before my erotic writer alter ego Molly Weatherfield or even Pam Rosenthal got published -- that erotic writing is, and should be, its own reward.

I'm curious, admit it, erotic writers out there -- is it good for you?



Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I’m with you on the “it’s not hard in the way that I often hear romance authors talking about”. The “hard” in that sense often seems to come down to their being somehow embarrassed by writing it, or by the idea of someone else reading what they’ve written. As an erotic romance writer, I write about what I’ve done, what gets me hot, and what I’d like to do . . . I don’t think those kinds of scenes work otherwise (if you don’t like oral or anal or BDSM, I don’t see how you could write it successfully, and if you’re terrified that Aunt Mavis will find out you like oral or anal or BDSM, that might make it hard to put down on the page).

9:45 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sometimes for me it's what I'd like to do, in a different body and maybe on a different planet... which I think sometimes disappoints Molly Weatherfield fans when they meet me having expected... I dunno, some Laurel Hamilton vampire queen. But that's part of the point too, isn't it? That your imagination and desires are a large part of your sexuality (the late literary theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote brilliantly on this -- if I ever write another Weatherfield book it will have an epigraph from Sedgwick)

While as for Aunt Mavis -- when a piece of my novel Safe Word (w/a Molly Weatherfield) made it into a Best American Erotica Anthology and my mother felt she simply had to read it. "Don't," I told her, "please don't." But of course she did -- and when I timidly ventured to ask what she thought, it was like her jaw had been wired shut. "It was very. Well. Written."

Well, she'll never do that again, I thought, and I was right. But as for my basically non-kinky romance sexuality, I don't care who reads that.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I did realize in Vienna Waltz I did write one scene in my current WIP where I instinctively didn't fade to black, because it seemed to me that in that case how the scene progressed mattered to the characters and the story. It was Wonderful post, Pam! I think you've hit on what I find so difficult about writing sex scenes with the idea that it's hard to find words that aren't still for something that is in so many ways beyond words. It's a long time since I've written a sex scene - when I started writing historical suspense I instinctively faded to black. Though in Vienna Waltz, I did realize I needed to convey the sexually charged relationships among the characters - some of whom aren't actually lovers in the time frame of the story - so I layered in moments where they remember fragments of encounters. I worked hard on that language, going for words that were sensory but also gritty and that summed up the attitude of those characters and their relationship.

I did write one sex scene in my current WIP where I didn't fade to black. Somehow instinctively I felt that how the scene progressed was important to those characters and the story arc. It still wasn't very descriptive. And it's coming out of the book entirely in revisions, due to qualms my editor had about those two characters making love at all (which, on reflection, I agree with--I'm not sure those two people would actually go through with it in those circumstances, and I think my editor was right to question what it would do the reader's perception of the heroine). It was interesting to discover, though, that even in my current books there are cases where fading to black isn't enough.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Absolutely agree that it needs to be what makes you hot, Isobel and Pam. As for the language, I've always thought that an author needs to be able to read every scene out loud to herself, if nobody else, without blushing for whatever reason.

If she can't do that, then the scene is lacking for some reason - which may be potential reason at grandmother reading it, or simply terror that one's expert advisor will decide one's an idiot who paid no attention to all the help so generously given. (I shudder to think how many rewrites my first gunfight went through. I felt like such a dolt.)

1:18 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Very provocative, Tracy, about fading to black. Oddly, I find that even my most explicitly erotic fiction has fading-to-black moments, or times when I want to refer rather than describe. I have to think about that...

And Diane, I absolutely agree about being able to read aloud.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

Terrific post, Pam! And a marvelous follow-up to Leslie's post. I think some of the embarrassment on the part of authors is exactly the Aunt Mavis issue: they get squeamish about putting the words on paper because not only might Aunt Mavis disapprove, but she, like readers often tend to do, as Pam mentioned, assume that the characters are the author. And since there seems to be a consensus that an author's sex scenes are at her best or most believable and compelling when she is writing what actually makes her hot, then in a way, that reader/Aunt Mavis perception is true, even if the author herself hasn't necessarily had sex in the positions or locations where she's placed her characters.

However; in a way, there should be a bit of discomfort in reading the scenes aloud for an audience -- not because of the giggle factor, which had better not be there, or else the readers aren't feeling the scene at all, but are taken right out of it -- but because the scenes should be so intimate that as listeners we feel like illicit voyeurs to someone else's most private experience.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Love it, Pam---to hear your mom answer "It was very. Well. Written."

I think I heard those very words from my mother, my mother-in-law, and GASP.... my father-in-law!

Talk about awkward, I had no idea he read my Harlequin Historical UNDONE, "Awakening His Lady".....whoda thunk it????

It's an eBook on Harlequin's website, it's just plain hard too find, yet he went to great lengths to download it. He's 70 something, not great with computers and VERY conservative.

But he seemed sincere when he said it and I am hoping here he really did like it. I'll never know, I think.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Back when I co-wrote with my mom, we used to proof galleys by reading them out loud (one of us with the galleys, one with the manuscript). Which meant my dad often heard us. Which meant I got over being embarrassed fairy quickly :-).

11:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

re what Juliet said:

In some sense the characters ARE me, because I felt the scene and had the fantasy. And in some sense they're not. I love that about fiction writing, that author and reader go to that shared, virtual, safe, but not entirely comfortable space together.

When my romance writing works, I think I'm also sharing my fantasy/aspiration/hope/belief about love and commitment. Which is why, I believe, romance has such passionate followers and readers.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:21 AM  

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