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Writing - Sometimes it's hard

Assuming you’re a reader, and not infected with Diseasius Writeris (Writing - it's a disease), what do you think of when you hear the word ‘writer’? Do you think of flickering candles, and a lonely garret filled with the scritch and scratch of a quill pen? Or do you think of the left bank of the Seine, and little out of the way cafés where people (some of the male) with straggly beards sit over cups three quarter filled with coffee beans and one quarter hot water, talking about things Proust-y (or Joust-y, my French is a little aged, like me)?

Well my friends. That was then. This is now, and... well, it’s both. For me at least. Because quite often I find myself writing at three in the morning. On my own. And yet... we have the Internet.

No. They haven’t invented internet coffee yet. And anyway, I’ve never drunk it. Not once.

No. Not tea either

Yes, I’m strange. But you knew that anyway :-).

Anyway. There I was, typing away, when it happened. Someone asked a question in one of the writers groups (they’re like French cafés, but you have to bring your own hot water). And the question? It related to writing. Well, to a rather specific writing:

‘How do people handle sex? There’s no sex in my book, though things come close. And although this is something I normally don’t have a problem with, I find it difficult putting it on paper.’

Oh, and I’ve changed the wording. So no Googling :-P!

It’s a perfectly good question to ask. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen it asked. No few writers seem to have similar issues. Which is why I find it interesting. After all, writers write about murder, attempted murder, earthquake, fire, flood and crisis. They write about the rise of the Great Dark Lord ™ and the massacre of villages and armies. The end of the world, the end of a love. And the question doesn’t seem to arise. ‘How do people handle writing about killing someone?’ Nope, never seen it asked. ‘How do people write about a bank robbery?’ Nope. Well, apart from the odd technical question. ‘Should I have the guy rim the safe, or use a torch?’ Or ‘Hey – if he stabs her from behind, and he’s shorter than she is, where would it land and how much blood should there be?’ That stuff, yes. But not…

I guess sex is different :-P.

But should it be? In many (I might hope even ‘most’) cases, sex is the thing of which writers have more experience than the other things. Yes. It’s possible there is a writer out there who has had more experience killing people than in making the beast with more backs than one and (generally) more feet than two, but if there is, I really, really hope I never end up talking to them :-). So why? Why is writing about sex, writing a sex ‘scene’ ‘different’?

I’ll be brave. I’ll offer an opinion. And I’ll say in advance the offering of that opinion is not intended to suggest I think I know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s great writing, or even great sex :-P.

I think the first problem is doing it. Hey! Stop sniggering! Yes, you at the back :-P!

I think one problem is ‘writing sex scenes’. And sex. Or what people think sex is.

It’s a bit like a movie. Well, in the sense it doesn’t involve cameras. Or popcorn. Well, OK. Popcorn. If you insist. You know how it is. The hero and the heroine are just about to plan the Great Bank Robbery ™ together. So naturally they have to go take a shower. Together. To plan the robbery. Because, um, well, because… because the sound of the shower will stop the hidden microphones hearing them! That’s it, right?

Right. The sex scene.

And what does ‘sex’ involve here? Well, mostly not showing sex. Or at least, not showing what generally springs to mind when we talk about ‘the sex scene’. Penetration. Copulation. Tab A slipping into Slot B. And you know what? Maybe _that’s_ the problem. Tab bloody A and Slot bloody B. Not only are they kind of silly to describe, but in some ways they’re the most trivial and boring parts of ‘sex’, yes? And the inevitable (and messy :-P) conclusion of said slipping is in some ways even more meaningless.

So maybe we shouldn’t write ‘sex scenes’. Or maybe we should redefine ‘sex’.

I’m told there’s steady money to be made in skin books. But I'm guessing they’re a bit like what I guess Mills and Boon and other formula markets (and I'm not knocking formula markets) might be. There’s rules. Making them up, it might be that someone has to get penetrated by something every 8.293 pages, and there has to be a (generally female) same sex scene for every 4.2 mixed gender events. In those, sure. The deed has to be, um, deeded.

On the other hand, the ‘bodice ripper’ is called that for a reason. There are lots of heaving bosoms, all just-about constrained by appropriate bodices. The heroine’s bodice may get ripped some by a bad guy, but never quite ripped away, because that’s reserved for the hero at the end. But the hero still only gets to rip the bodice :-P. Well, mostly :-).

I’ll shamelessly state the obvious here and also flagrantly type-cast. So I’ll beg and assume granted forgiveness in advance. There is a difference between gliding into a room almost wearing a strategically slit silk dress over which some designer wept blood and some seamstresses spent a lot of sleepless nights cutting, and standing on a corner wearing f#$% me pumps, a skirt that used to be a belt before it shrunk and a top two sizes too small.

A difference, but also a similarity :-P.

Let’s go back to a woman gliding in to the room in silk. Again flagrantly type casting, the women are trying to decide if the colour goes with her hair, and whether it’s a Cynthia Rowley or a Marchesa. The men are trying to work out if that really is a nipple they think they see, and if someone can persuade her to bend over so they can see if what looks like it should fall out really will :-P. It doesn’t actually matter if everything is held in place with invisible titanium steel wires. They’ll be hoping and waiting just as much at the end of the evening as before.

What’s the old music hall adage? Always leave them wanting more?

The street corner is contracted to deliver. The only issue is how much you pay for it. The Rowley _may_ deliver – but getting there is another matter :-). If the book in question is a skin book, then clothes have to come off and bits get inserted into other bits with a fairly rapid inevitability. If, on the other hand, it’s a hot-end romance, then there can be lots of not-quite (to varying degrees) scenes, but whether or not the deed must be done is a matter of choice. Or the earlier ‘not-quites’ may be more graphic, but the deed itself be more of a ‘show-not-tell’:

‘She could hear the rain starting to drive on the windows. As it drove, the beat was close matched by the pounding of her blood. This time, she knew, there would be no stopping, and this time, she knew, he felt the same.

The heat of the fire burned on her. He’d stacked the logs high, and the flames kissed each one, splitting them wide and licking deep. Where his skin touched hers, she burned too.

Later, as she fell asleep, hot salt taste still on her tongue and sweetly sore from fresh stretching, she listened to the soft patter on the windows. She looked down at him, the impish grin still clear on his sleeping lips. You just wait, she thought. I think it’s going to rain tomorrow as well. She smiled. There was a lot to be said for rain…’

OK. Hardly great writing. But then it's mine, so what did you expect :-P? But a possible example. Focus on the fore, the pre- and skip the deed save by inference. One of the benefits of this, to my poor wit, is that a climax is, well, climactic. You can only really do it once (skin books aside) before it just becomes ‘more of the same’. Whereas the pre-s are, by definition more variable (the essentials of orgasm are fairly fixed. Most of the variables are just geography :-P). The pre-s always leave them (in this case you, readers all) wanting the ‘more’ – and an implied ‘more’ still does, because you haven’t seen it. You can still be waiting for the heroine to bend down again, because nothing _did_ spill out, even though you (well, some of you) hope it might next time :-). And there’s even the definition of ‘sex’. In my poor view, even a glance can be ‘sex’:

'Janet's eyes drifted to his impish grin. She raised one eyebrow, and let her glance drift down. She lingered, then looked up. "Nice jeans. Oh - and your fly..." His hands flew to where she had been looking "... is done up just fine, Riley." She grinned again, one canine biting a lip.'

If that's not sex, I'll eat my stetson. So please. Let it be sex, or I'll have to buy a stetson to eat :-P.

Writers write sex all the time, but they (we?) get hung up (if hung is a word to use in this context) on penetration. Which, I suggest, is the least and most trivial part of sex, and a much lesser part of sensuality.

And maybe that might be it. Maybe writers should stop writing ‘sex’ and write more ‘sensuality’. And maybe, just maybe, everybody else out there knows this already and has been doing it forever. And maybe I’m an Idiot.

Oh. Right. You knew that already :-).


Debra Elliott's picture

Great blog. Enjoyed reading your words. Thank you for stopping by Sticks and Stepping Stones and your thoughtful comments.

Graeme's picture

I hope you're aware that claiming a male capable of the whole 'thought' thing can get you in trouble in various quarters?

I just checked with my wife, and she swears you must be talking about someone else... :-P.

My thanks for the vote of confidence and appreciation :-). Oh - and I hope you don't mind, but I edited your reference to Sticks and Stones and turned it into a link. Anyone I can send your way won't be disappointed by what they find. It's a fine blog indeed!

Kelly Hashway's picture

Since I write for kids of all ages, which includes YA, I try to stay away from this topic. In my YA I do have kissing but I don't take it further than there. However, I have read some really great books that don't shy away from the subject. The only problem is that when you write YA, introducing sex in your novel could easy land you on a banned books list, and well, that's a whole different issue.

Graeme's picture

And you are, of course, entirely correct. And not just for YA.

Which is why, I think, that unless you're writing the type of product for which it is essential, I think it's better to start by writing sensuality. I think, suitably framed and phrased, sensuality is something that can fit in any genre. Then you can look at the 'Rules' for the specific genre you're writing, and put the right kind of frame, curtains and window leading round the sensuality itself. For some types of writing, YA being one :-), there's a lot more window lead blocking the direct view than in others. But that doesn't mean the window lead isn't attractive in itself.

So don't write sex. Write sensuality. With window lead, as appropriate :-).

Or such is my poor wit and view.

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