Why writing about sex is hard

Many people find it difficult to write about sex. Perhaps there’s a sense of embarrassment that you may be the only person that finds your sex scene sexy. Or perhaps you can’t find that balance between ridiculously bawdy and grown up.

Why am I pondering this? Sex did not play a large role in my novel Indigo. Perhaps you knew it was there but it was never a central focus. This has had to change because my sequel to Indigo involves vampires. Need I say more?

So I started to think about what makes for good sex in fiction. I’m thinking of standard fiction here, rather than erotica, which has its own conventions (and disasters). I’m also thinking of sex that’s intended to be sexy. What makes it work for readers? Perhaps it’s easiest to start with bad sex.

Unfortunately I no longer have the book, but there was one particular scene in Lionel Shriver’s Post Birthday World where the main (female) character is indulging in a sexual fantasy. I’m pretty sure the line went something like ‘… clamping my mouth on her beaver’. At first I had no idea what was happening. My first thoughts ran to North American mammals. Then I worked it out a few seconds later (doh!). But the book had moved swiftly on. My confusion deepened. This was sexy, how? Perhaps it was an insightful representation of her character’s frustrated and empty life. It didn’t quite read that way. It read more like ‘Huh?’

Regardless. This is an example of two issues that I have trouble with in literary sex scenes, and perhaps you will agree. First, an odd metaphor is used – a beaver, a flower, a ‘member’, a really quite significant astrological event. Sometimes all of the above in close succession (please, no stallions …). Second, there is no foreplay.

One of the sexiest scenes I have read was a kiss in DH Lawrence’s book The Lost Girl. It was just a kiss, but it was everything that came before it that made it erotic. It was the longing suffusing the entire book that transformed it into a sex scene. So, ironically, it was not having sex that made it so powerful.

Here’s a Victorian example of the power of longing. It’s the famous scene in Dracula where Jonathan Harker is ‘attacked’ by three vampires (poor fellow!). I thought I’d use this quote because it suggests why a vampire story just about necessitates sex and it also demonstrates how something that almost happens can pass as a sex scene. Note that this ‘almost’ quality is generally not deemed good enough in film adaptations of the book. Coppola’s Dracula transforms this moment into a kind of orientalist orgy. Which is fine, in its place.

“There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain, but it is the truth…

I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat.

Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.”

Part of the impact of this scene (if you are reading the whole novel) comes from the fact that you have probably put yourself in a Victorian headspace. You’re in coy-love-letters-and-boldly-holding-hands mode. It’s a surprise. If you’re writing wall-to-wall sex, you don’t have this effect. Just a thought.

So there are my two points on writing sex in standard fiction. Use the power of longing to full advantage and say what you actually mean.

While I can’t condone all of his suggestions, Steve Almond offers some good and humorous advice for those writing sex scenes:  http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/out_there/documents/02844055.htm

Carmilla – another famous vampire story resplendent with ‘almost’ sex. Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10007

The Bad Sex awards. Ample proof that otherwise sane novelists tend to flip out while writing sex scenes. Note the use of metaphors. (And a warning – bad sex content): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/30/bad-sex-award

Despite all the fine authors using Smashwords (in all categories), I’m afraid you only have to take a brief look at some of the erotic titles and their blurbs to understand how fine the line is between sexy and completely ridiculous. Maybe not so fine, in many cases. Warning – you may snort coffee out your nose in disbelief: http://www.smashwords.com/books/category/59

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