Not long ago, I agreed to edit an erotic anthology - The Flesh Made Word. I'd been thinking a lot about what I'm looking for for this book, and started to write a post about that, but it got out of hand, and turned into a more general (and very long) post about writing sex. I'm hoping that inspires a few people to try their hand at it, even if they'd never let it anywhere close to a printing press.
This is part 1 of a 5-part series on writing sex. I'll fill in the links as they come out.
Not too long ago, I was reading a book - a thriller with compelling bad guys and heroic heroes. A race to save the world. The plot was intricate but not obscure, the pacing impeccable, and the writing tight and confident, each scene ratcheting up the tension toward the climax of the novel.
And then, there was the sex scene.
It wasn't a gratuitous sex scene. It was a scene where two of the villains join forces (as it were), where they use each other, and manipulate each other. It was a perfect way to dig in deep into the souls of these characters.
But here's the thing: as writers we learn how to construct a plot, how to create layered, nuanced characters. We study how to pace a chase scene or a fight scene, how to kill a character with maximum impact, how to keep action moving, how to ease up and become introspective. We learn dialogue techniques, and ways of describing things. We explore metaphors and similes, phrasing to match the mood. We learn when to mangle grammar to meet the needs of our prose.
But, just like in the public school system, we study everything in depth, everything but sex. When it comes to sex, we approach it obliquely, with a sense that, while it's necessary that we cover this stuff, it's embarassing and shameful, and we should try to get it over with as fast as possible, no matter how good it feels.
And so in this otherwise fine and commendable novel, the characters get nekkid, and then proceed to engage in a string of cringe-worthy cliches ripped from bad Seventies-era SF novels.
The truth of it is writing good sex is hard.
I had a girlfriend, long, long time ago, who kept in touch after we broke up (she may be reading this - ~waves~). She'd write me letters from college and tell me about the different things she'd done. I can probably accurately describe the length, girth, shape, and taste of far more boys' anatomy than is reasonable, given the level of my own experience in the matter (Some of them may be reading this, as well - ~waves~).
She once wrote to me that the best way to get to know someone is to sleep with them. For a while, at least, she'd sleep with people she thought were interesting when she first met them, in order to decide whether she should befriend them. Which certainly explained some things that I hadn't quite grokked back when we were dating.
Without commenting on the wisdom of this strategy, it is true that sex can be a powerful way to reveal character. Sex comes from a deep and primal place within us, and how it manifests can reveal in a relatively short amount of text volumes about the character of the characters.
If you write it right.
However, precisely because it's so powerful and intimate, writing about it honestly is extraordinarily difficult. We bring all our own baggage and hangups to it. We bring the things we're ashamed of letting the world see. We bring the things we're afraid of letting our friends and family see. And our instincts are to hide these things. To obfuscate them behind language. To use cliches to distance ourselves from the act that's playing out on the page.
We avoid writing sex except when it is necessary for the plot. We fade to black to avoid the squishy bits where we'll have to make difficult decisions, or reveal too much about ourselves.
Eastern martial artists have a saying (with variants): You must practice a technique 10,000 times to master it. If your life depends on a technique that you only practice when it's absolutely necessary for the plot, chances are you're going to fuck up.
This is why I think it's important for all writers to write erotica, to write a story that is heavily and explicitly sexual. Even if you never intend to publish erotica. Even if you'll never show it to anyone. If you expect ever to be writing a novel or story involving real intimacy (and depending on the story, that can be anything from touching fingers through a privacy screen to a full-fledged orgy), you'd be well served by having had some practice, not just in writing the squishy bits, but in integrating said squishy bits seamlessly into a larger framework.
(To be continued...)