Tag Archive: Sex

  1. More sex? I’ll take it!

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    In the stock photo collection I use, when you look up “sexy book” this comes up. Works for me.

    In the last post, I talked about how often we encounter sex in books, and why that might be. I promised I’d be back with more sex, and that’s a promise I’m keeping. See, sometimes I am reliable. 😉

    One of the interesting things about sex scenes, besides the fact that they’re sex scenes, is that authors all have their own way of going about writing them. To know why they are written the way they are (and why I choose to write mine the way I do) you need to first determine why the scene is in the book. Sex scenes are like any other detail in a book; they should serve a purpose. Sometimes they are written only to titillate — sometimes as a natural progression of a relationship. What is the difference between a sex scene meant to arouse and one meant to show the culmination of a relationship? How can you tell the difference between erotica and romance?

    You’ll often see people commenting in reviews that a book is or isn’t erotica or romance. There’s a lot of crossover here. I was a librarian for many years, so I’m basing my judgement on years of reader’s advisory to make my genre calls — it’s the most familiar to me and was the most reliable way for me to find the right book when someone asked for a recommendation. To illustrate the difference between the genres, I’ll use an example from a series that went from plot driven, noir, urban fantasy, mystery storytelling in the early volumes to urban fantasy romance to finally land firmly in erotica.

    When I first started reading the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton, the books were pretty standard urban fantasy fare. Each book set up a murder mystery, then, in a fairly noir fashion, there was a lot of detecting and danger. Romance was an underlying theme in the early books, particularly with Anita’s push/pull with the lead vampire and werewolf of the series, but it took time to consummate — I’m not even sure if anyone has sex “on screen” in the first two books. But in the first two books, the romance was not the driving factor of the plot, the murder mysteries were. This is the primary difference between genres.

    When you’re determining categories of books, it’s important to understand the underlying differences between genres. A person who enjoys science fiction isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a romance with science fiction elements. You might have even run into this confusion when someone you know recommended something to you that you ended up, to their surprise, not liking — “But you like fantasy! This has dragons!” One of the key components to determining genre is the plot. Is the plot dependent on the genre elements in the book?

    Another good example, when you look at this photo, do you really think it’s about the kilt?

    If a book is about a man and a woman meeting, and the plot revolves around whether or not they get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re on a space ship or in a wizard’s school — it’s a romance. If the genre elements could be swapped out, and the story would essentially be unchanged, then romance is the main category you put the book in, with the sub-genre — science fiction/fantasy/horror — being secondary. But if the plot revolves around whether or not the man and woman in question make peace with alien life, then the genre is science fiction, even if during the course of the book the two of them get together. The mere presence of a relationship does not make a book a romance. The mere presence of a space ship does not make a book science fiction. The plot is what changes the genre.

    Back to our example of Anita Blake. After three books, things started to heat up in Anita’s life, and the balance between mystery and romance became weighted heavily toward the romance end of things. The plot more consistently revolves around who Anita loves, with the mystery taking a back seat to the relationship issues. Because this is a series that shifted (pun perhaps intended), it’s harder to say 100% if it becomes romance or urban fantasy at this point. Anita is still working with the police, but the cases get less and less page space, and the relationships more and more.

    Most readers note Obsidian Butterfly as being the point at which the books undergo a drastic shift in tone. Personally, I feel like the author was already edging us closer to erotica with each entry. Obsidian Butterfly seems like the start of this departure from urban fantasy mystery, I think, because the book on a whole is an outlier; it takes place in another city entirely and most of the recurring characters aren’t in it. It’s so different, that when we jump back into Anita’s life after this book, the lack of sexual tension in Obsidian Butterfly makes the contrast all the more obvious.

    Before Obsidian Butterfly, Anita’s sexual encounters had already increased dramatically from the first three books. After Obsidian Butterfly, these books are no longer simply urban fantasy or romance; they are erotica — the sex scenes are not only extremely graphic, they are the focus of the book. They take up pages and pages, Anita focuses on them to the exclusion of whatever story is going on in the background, and they often drive the plot. The sex is the reason for the book, not the story. That means the book is erotica. When sex is the whole reason for the plot, that’s how you tell the difference between romance and erotica.

    I stopped reading the series after it turned completely to erotica. Not because the sex in and of itself was off-putting, but the way Hamilton wrote it was — which leads me to my next point. Why do I write sex scenes the way I do?

    Much like with anything we enjoy in life, we have preferences. Favorite foods, flavors, colors, book genres, movie types — whatever it is, we usually have things we prefer. We also usually have things we don’t prefer. Maybe we hate green beans. Maybe the presence of a particular actor will put us off a movie we’d normally like. Maybe a dress is fabulous, but that color! Ugh! Erotica and sex scenes are no different. People have preferences and turn offs. Hamilton wrote a lot about the pleasure of pain as she started to delve into her erotica. Pain is not pleasurable to me in the slightest. I don’t find anything remotely sexy about it. But plenty do (and more power to them), thus Hamilton has a generous market and continues to thrive as a writer. This works, because when people read erotica, they are looking for their particular preference. If you write erotica, you know that and don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you’ll turn someone off with a particular description. You know the audience is there for what you’re writing.

    I don’t write graphic sex scenes. As I said before, it’s not because I object to them. The problem I have with writing extensive, graphic scenes in my books is I’m not writing a sex driven plot-line. I’m writing a different kind of story. In my writing, I remove — what I like to call — distracting elements. My style of writing is character driven stories with a fast, driving momentum. I want to pull the reader along — I want them to turn the page and keep going to see what happens next. If I take too much time to discuss at length, say, what’s for dinner, I feel the momentum start to lag. It’s a style choice, nothing more. Some authors love to luxuriate the reader with details. Some readers love this leisurely pace in their books. I write the same way I like to read. I’m not sure if this is true of all authors, but it’s true for me. I prefer books that move along and don’t dwell on details of little importance to the plot.

    I mean, it is a delicious looking apple. Maybe we should describe it. Then someone might eat it. It could be important. The apple that started a war. Wait, that’s already been done.

    My editor and I have a saying, “And an apple sat on the table, unnoticed by anyone.” It’s shorthand for us to talk about things in my writing that have little point other than an interesting aside. I don’t want these distractions, or “apples,” there for the reader to wonder about only to be disappointed later when the detail amounts to nothing. If I give details, they are important to either the plot, the character development, or to allow the reader to feel the setting and mood of the story. I discard all the distractions as much as I can.

    For me, detailed sex is a distraction. It’s a bit different from an apple on the table, but the reasoning is the same. All the editing I’m doing is in service of the story. If I can keep the reader’s focus on that story, then I’ve done it right. If I take the time to detail out a sex scene, it may work just fine for some people. The problem arises when it isn’t fine. I’ve written Paul and Jane to be a great couple. You’ve followed them through an adventure. You love them as a couple. You want them to fall in love. The moment comes when they kiss. And now they’re about to have the culmination of that relationship! Oh boy! This will be wonderful! And then I detail an intimate act that makes you go, “Ick!”

    All that work to get you into the moment is wiped away by one scene. What I wrote that I thought was super sexy, you thought was downright gross. Now I’ve lost you, when there was no need to. As I said in the last posting, people aren’t reading books for the sex scenes unless it’s erotica. As an author, if you haven’t managed to already, you aren’t going to sell a couple as being in love if you include a highly detailed sex scene. You also don’t ruin the coupling if you fade to black just as the deed is being done. However, what you do achieve by fading to black is the perfect sex scene.

    I feel like chicken tonight.

    Let’s say roast chicken is your favorite food. If someone tells you they are going to serve you roast chicken, you start to imagine it. If they sit you down to wait, you start to taste it. If they start cooking it, the smells remind you of the last time you had it, and how great it was. When they put it in front of you, and you see how perfectly it’s been cooked, you know, without even taking that first bite, it’s going to be delicious. You can taste the flavors in your mouth without even eating it, you’ve thought about it so much by that point. If you bite into that chicken and get fish flavors instead, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, it probably ruined the whole experience for you, even if that fish was expertly prepared and as delicious as any fish ever cooked. You like chicken; you wanted chicken; you thought about chicken; you imagined chicken; but then you got fish. You don’t care if it’s awesome fish.

    Detailing sex in books is like this. You’re setting the table and cooking up the meal in such a way the reader already has a picture in their mind of what it’s going to be like. And there is no picture that is more perfect for a reader than the one they think up — that is their idea of a perfect sex scene. Fading to black allows them to keep that picture in their head of what happened. It allows them to hold on to the perfect culmination of this relationship, and move on with the story without dwelling on anything that might accidentally make them think “Ick!” You don’t stall them, you don’t leave them with a bad taste in their mouth. They will continue to enjoy the story after that point.

    I don’t write explicit sex scenes because I don’t see the upside to it as a storyteller. I might draw some people further in to the story if I get it just right, but I also might turn some people away. For something so trivial, it isn’t worth the risk. It’s the act itself that is important to my characters and their growth as a couple, not what they put where and when. By allowing the reader to fill in the details, I’ve created a bespoke sex scene for every possible desire.

    If I were asked by a fellow author advice about sex scenes, I’d tell them everything I told you, with one addition – “All that said, if you really think it’s important, put it in your book.” I don’t think there’s never a place for it. Detailed sex scenes can also do a lot for a story. They can show how painfully awkward that first time is with someone. They can show how connected two people are. They can show heat in a way fading to black isn’t particularly strong on. However, there is an art to it, and I’ll say that I’ve read an awful lot of bad sex scenes. In fact, there’s more than one award for bad sex in writing. I think I’m okay not testing my ability to write these scenes to avoid the book version of a Razzie.

    That’s really all I have to say about sex in books — at least I think so. 😉 Next posting I’ll be talking about the ease with which independent authors can edit their works post publishing — as compared to the traditional market — and my feelings on these ever changing “director’s cuts” and how they impact the experience for readers. Thanks for reading!

  2. The Right Time for Sex

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    Ah, sweet romance.

    Here’s an entry guaranteed to get me that sweet, sweet link juice. (That’s a thing, right?) Sex. It’s in the majority of books I’ve read that were written post 1980 where the intended audience is adults. It’s either implied/fade to black sex or as anatomically correct as a surgical dummy. Sex scenes aren’t ubiquitous, but their absence is rare enough among bestsellers that when the deed doesn’t happen, it’s remarked upon – Dan Brown being a bestseller I recall reading specifically about in this regard. Unless you’re reading Christian Fiction, sex is more likely than not to show up in your books.

    Why is sex in so many books? Certainly not to sell the books, unless we’re talking about erotica. I don’t think anyone ever picked up a copy of Gone Girl because of the sex scenes, and the lack of sex scenes didn’t stop Dan Brown from dominating the bestseller lists for so long. So why are they in there so often?

    I can’t speak to why individual authors include them, but I can make a guess as to why they happen in so many books. Most fictional stories break down to being about people. They can have themes — like what happens when you have a society that is ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government (1984 by George Orwell) — but ultimately, even in heavily thematic books like Orwell’s, the author needs to tell a more personal story in order to bring the reader into their world — one about people.

    A story is full of people. To make the people more realistic, they have to have realistic motivations and actions.

    One of the strongest drives in humankind is the drive to procreate; it’s often listed as one of the base needs of all creatures  and Maslow specifically called it out in his hierarchy of human needs. It’s so important, it’s at the base of the pyramid. But what does that even mean? Maslow came up with this list of human needs as a means to explain motivation — why do we do the things we do? This is an important idea to keep in mind when asking the question, ‘Why so much sex?’ We might only think of sex in writing as the explicit act, but in truth, the motivating factor of sex crops up in stories you might not have thought about before.

    Even fairy tales, where heroes and villains are as black and white as it gets and the story is relatively simple, the evil is usually represented as a dark version of one of Maslow’s defined needs. Fairy tales are, after all, a way to teach a lesson — usually about overcoming the less savory aspects of our desires and motivations. That means that, yes, sex is a motivating factor in quite a few fairy tales. It’s there, it’s just implied sex rather than explicit.

    I feel bad that apples have forever been maligned by this tale.

    When a child reads Snow White, all they need is the basic premise of bad guy/good guy. The evil queen is jealous, so schemes against Snow White. The story for them is saying jealousy is bad and kindness is good. To a child, they might be jealous because another kid has a toy they want — a covetous emotion more than jealousy. But the evil queen in Snow White is most certainly jealous of Snow White’s beauty; that is explicitly stated several times in the story. So, let’s dive into that and how it relates to Maslow and sex.

    What is jealousy? In the case of Snow White, the evil queen’s jealousy comes from a desire to be the most beautiful. Why do people wish to be beautiful? It’s because they want the most choice in romantic partners — in theory1, the more attractive you are, the better your potential mate will be — which brings us back to the base need of sex driving the Queen’s motivations. That’s a deep reading of a fairly simple tale, but it’s a theme that comes up again and again in these old stories.

    As our minds mature, we prefer more complication in our stories than “evil bad, hero good.” When a movie is made based on this same basic story of Snow White, but aimed at a more mature audience, it comes out like Snow White and the Huntsman, where the evil queen gets a backstory full of trauma that leads her to the kind of person she is. Villains like Cersei Lannister are given redeeming qualities to make them more human — she loves her children and would do anything to protect them. All these aspects create more fleshed out characters, in other words, complexity.

    When you start to make a character more complex, you also start to include a variety of scenarios to explore them as a person. Often times, one of those scenarios is to put them in these situations with someone either strongly compatible with them, personality-wise, or strongly incompatible (characters who hold no particular interest to your protagonist are rarely interesting to write, and probably less interesting to read). Once you have two characters in a story who are strongly compatible, you will inevitably have sparks — that is the natural course of two people who have good chemistry meeting up.

    Since sex is one of the core driving forces of motivations, it’s absence in a book where there are two characters of compatible sexual orientations becomes noted upon. Dan Brown doesn’t write sex scenes, but there’s enough tension in those books it would not feel out of place if something did occur. In fact, the absence of it feels more purposeful to some than the inclusion would.

    The perfect partner.

    I don’t think readers and critics noting the lack of sex is because readers are sex crazed and want sex shoehorned in everything. On the contrary, I think it’s because they really got into the character of Robert Langdon. They put themselves in his shoes. And that character is clearly into whichever female character he’s paired with. He’s in tense situations, they help each other out, the woman is always described as being quite attractive — the fact that they never knock boots is notable. We, as readers, cannot see ourselves in a situation where a single person, who is obviously into us, never makes a move or vice versa. It’s unrealistic. We would make that move with the dashing hottie. If said move didn’t work, then things get awkward, and that also makes for interesting fiction as it causes a new kind of tension.

    Two characters who wander along in a story as friends only can work; I’m not saying it can’t. But even if it does, there’s probably a boatload of ‘ship stories out there finishing the job for the author who didn’t put it in there. Pretty sure Fanfiction.net could change their name to Shipping.net and a majority of the people who post and read there wouldn’t mind. I think that shows just how much of an uphill battle a writer is fighting if they try to forgo putting sex into their books.

    There’s a frustration that builds with a reader when you put two people together who never consummate that relationship in a sexual way. I honestly don’t think it’s because the readers desperately want to read a sex scene — though I do admit those readers exist. I think most readers are frustrated for a deeper, more emotional reason. Sex is the shortcut way for a writer to say, “Hey, these two are in love and this is the culmination of that.” We all recognize that’s not the case in real life, but in writing, you only have so much time with your reader. Sometimes, shortcuts like these are a necessary payoff for a hundred pages of will they/won’t they. Readers appreciate it when you reward the characters they’ve fallen in love with. Sex is a shortcut to saying these characters have achieved happiness. Even if the world is falling apart around them, at least they found each other.

    And if none of that convinces you why sex is in so many books, maybe the simplest answer is the truest: Sex is in books, because readers and writers are human, and humans have sex. Simple as that.

    This ended up being a little bit longer than I planned. I wanted to get into how I write my sex scenes specifically, why I choose to write them the way I do. Turns out, I’m a pontificator. That’s what you get for reading a blog by an author. The next entry will be all about my sex scenes in particular – specifically my penchant for writing fade to black sex scenes.

    1. I wanted to expand on this point, but it didn’t really fit into the them of the piece, so here it is, in a lengthy footnote —In reality, there are obviously a lot of factors that go into choosing a superior partner. Humans are far more complicated than most mammals in this. However, despite that, we still primp and preen as if it is still one of our highest priorities as a species. The beauty industry is a 500 billion dollar industry. The fitness industry nearly $100 billion — I suspect most people who go to gyms and keep at it aren’t doing so primarily for health. So, despite our protestations that true beauty is on the inside, and every tinder profile that says they’re looking for a great personality, we continue to strive for outward perfection, in both ourselves and our potential mates. I find that pretty interesting, especially as someone who writes character motivations. If we were to write that Jane falls in love with Paul, and Paul is an extremely handsome man, we don’t really have to dwell too much on why Jane falls in love with Paul. Same with the other way around. But if either character is plain looking, or even more drastic, very unattractive, as a writer, I have to justify this love with a whole bunch of other character traits for it to work for the reader. I have no judgement on how people choose their potential partners. People like who they like, and in life, I’ve found little evidence that frequent poor matches because of preferred features changes a person’s outlook on who they find attractive to them. It’s just an interesting human quirk to me; despite everything we say, we still kinda go back to the roots of our species, and often pick who the best partners are based on physical appearance — even when the evidence suggests that physical “perfection” does not create an ideal, stable relationship (as just about every super hot movie star’s marriage to another super-hot movie star can attest to.) I think, as a species, we’d like to have evolved past this simplistic and rather shallow notion of who a good partner is, but in truth, most of us are still slaves, if only just a little bit, to our base instincts. The desire to overcome these instincts, I feel, is what truly differentiates us from the other animals. Paradise birds don’t care that they’re shallow. Pretty feathers — that’s all that matters to them. Will they ever care? I’ve no clue. But, we do, and that’s what matters. We want to care about the bird beneath the feathers. Books are a great analogy for this. We can fall in love with a cover, but it’s fleeting love, and we’re easily distracted by other covers. But what’s inside the book? If it’s high quality, it sticks with us for a lifetime. The fact that, despite our instinct otherwise, we recognize that can be true with people as well is an aspect of humanity I admire. Many of us truly want that lifetime experience in a partner and many of us do find that, regardless of our own shabby covers.
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