Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writing sex scenes is hard ... er ... difficult. By Ad Hudler

I’ve tried to include lovemaking scenes in two of my novels, including the one that will hit shelves this September: “Man of the House.” I mean, sex is such a huge part of being human, and leaving it out of books makes your stories seem less real … because we are sexual beings, after all. I have a friend who says that every single decision made by a man or woman boils down to sex. (Okay, probably more for men because their libidos are more active.) If you think about it, that’s not a far-fetched theory. We are programmed to conceive. And it seems we have an innate desire to attract a mate because if we have someone else to help us out in this world, then life is easier and safer. Sex is a big part of this equation. My wife even thinks that men embezzle from their companies (think Enron and countless others) because they ultimately want to appear attractive to the opposite sex. And, hey, power is sexy, right?

Okay, but now the bad news. Or maybe it’s good. Not one of my sex scenes has made it into print. My wife vetoes them. So does my agent. So does my editor. Ew, they say. Yuck. Gross. Get it out of there.

I have tried subtle approaches: Their heavy, uneven breaths mingled with the creaking of the butcher block on which she sat. But it’s too subtle, no? For all we know they could be making bread instead of babies.

Okay, even more subtle: They walked into the bedroom and came out smiling twenty minutes later. My Sunday school teacher would approve, but it’s not much fun to read – is it?

Then the other problem: what to call the body parts. Women don’t like the T word for their mammary glands, even though that’s what men call them. And the P word? And the V word? I mean, really, are there any euphemisms for those that don’t elicit either disgust or giggles? And please … let’s not call it “his manhood,” okay? Or “tunnel of love.”

I’m wondering if sex should be left to the movies. There sure are some steamy scenes that haunt my mind, like the one in “Body Heat” with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt, and the scene on the butcher block (okay, I confess: that’s where I got the idea) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. How can I even possibly begin to capture such steamy moments on paper? Maybe this is why the Brits avoided sex scenes in their novels for all those centuries. Maybe we should follow their lead and leave sex to the celluloid. True, Anais Nin proved it was possible to pen stimulating scenes many decades ago, but in today’s reality-TV-show astmosphere, those oblique ways of writing about sex seem, well, they seem naïve. And isn’t that a shame?

But maybe I’ll write some convincing sex scenes yet. I’m teaching an advanced fiction-writing class this semester at University of South Florida in Tampa, and one of my bright students has shown that she’s pretty good at writing sex scenes. Here’s one set in the back seat of a limo:

“… He kissed me slowly at first, pulling away in between kisses to smile and view my expression. Shortly thereafter, I was on his side, or he on mine, everything blurred quickly. I was in Thomas’s arms – breathing had become a thing of the past, something we were both so incapable of. Thomas’s tie was hanging very crooked, nearly off. The left strap of my dress was no longer on my shoulder; one heel had been lost in the move. Eyes closed, lips pressed. I heard a long zip and knew instinctively that it was mine – my arms pulled through without a second thought. Thomas was as well joining me in the removal of unneeded clothing. … “Elle, I have wanted you since I first met you , shortly after you joined the Firm. I want you and will settle for nothing less.” … I stopped hearing after that. Thomas had won me long before he spoke, even if he did get his lines from a ‘Lifetime’ made-for-TV-movie. I let myself go, succumbing fully to my wants. There I was, in the backseat of a black limousine, in the arms of Tampa’s most eligible bachelor. He pulled me on top of him. The fit was as if God had made us for one another. Shortly after joining, I was pulling away, breathless and weak.”

Not bad, huh? I especially like that last line. Points to remember: She uses no body parts, other than arms or legs. And she refrains from describing the act while in progress, which means she doesn’t have to use that other word I remember from my grandma’s Harlequin romances: thrusting.

I asked Lauren Elliott, the student who wrote this, to talk about how she writes sex. Here’s what she had to say:

"... Well, when writing those scenes, the words are difficult, and I usually try to leave out as many as possible. It doesn't seem to matter which words you chose, it's going to come off wrong. Some of the cheesy ones will say something like "bulging member" which really just weirds me out! And with other words it will each sound like you're reading from a textbook or from a smutty magazine, neither of which you want. Growing up in the Elliott house, sex wasn't really talked about, so when I write it's kind of like that. In my story "Kill Me Again" (excerpted above) everyone knew what was happening in the closet at the end, it didn't need to be spelled out precisely. Something that I always think about (it's kind of weird, but hey!) is when I read a book with a scene in it, is it like that for me? Everyone's "ways" are different, and a lot of times if something isn't how it happens for you, it's not believable. So if I can leave it to the reader to "make it happen" then they feel like the story is more true to life and more "that could happen." I've noticed too that when my friends and I talk about things happening in real life, it's usually not said all the way through. Like with "Kill Me Again," if I were Elle and were telling that story to my girlfriends, I wouldn't need to continue telling them past Thomas on his knees and the steamy breath. The girls reading squeal, because we all know what's next! Two of my biggest readers of works-in-progress are my Mom and my best friend (the virgin). The last thing Mom wants is for her daughter to be writing smut and for her to read about my sexual knowledge; and half the time with Kirby (virgin best friend) the word 'penis' is enough to send her straight out of the room. It's finding that balance that makes Mom want to read it, Kirby comfortable, and still have non-virgin sex-talkers say "yeah, I can see it. That's right, OK." … If I’m uncomfortable writing it alone in my room, someone's going to be uncomfortable reading it alone in theirs. ... My mom always says "leave something to the imagination" when going out. The idea that it's sexier when he can't see it all... It applies to writing, too."

Me again: It’s great when the teacher can learn from the student, no?

How about you? Who are some of your favorite authors who can write such scenes?

Oh, in closing I need to say that I’m including the publicity shot for my next novel, which is about a househusband rediscovering his inner male (Alas, there will be no sex scenes because my wife said they sucked…er…weren’t good enough). Take a good look at the tool belt; there are some fun details. That's a feather duster next to the wrench. And the yellow thing is a banana.

Happy reading, everyone!

Ad Hudler’s comic, controversial novels have been published in five languages and are popular with book clubs throughout North America. He can be reached through his website AdHudler.com


Momcat43 said...

Honestly? 99% of the time I roll my eyes and skip it. It almost never adds anything to the story and often detracts from the flow, for me at least. It goes good story, good story, good story, !!SEX!! good story, good story. And I mean well-written scenes as well, not just cheesy/tacky ones.

Heather said...

Wow. I'm glad sex doesn't rule my life as it seems to rule yours and those you know! Sex scenes in books are such a digression. And they're especially annoying before you're married!! And, um..."all" men don't use the "T" word. Some men are gentlemen...even when they're with other men. =)

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Anonymous said...

Sex scenes are important to a book. I disgree that it distracts from the flow. Talk about the opposite! Of course it should be well-written and implying things is much better than just stating everything...And it ends up sounding really sick. I think writing sex scenes (like how your student did it) is very very clever. I like to call it intelligent smut XD. Anywho everyone is different if you don't like the sex scenes skip them.

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Anonymous said...

It depends on what kind of book/story you're writing on what kind of sex details you should get into. It is true that sex is a big part of life. A lot of very important moments have happened with my boyfriend as we're getting ready for sex and as we're cleaning up after sex. Those ten minutes in between (which roughly ends up being a page of writing if explicit) seems rather silly to completely skip over. You miss a lot of internal emotions which lead up to the part afterwards. But that doesn't mean you have to be explicit.

That said. You come to erotica. Which, is about plot but it is also about stimulation. I find written smut sexier than anything I could watch. Watching it seems awkward and reminds me of my own slips and awkward moves in the bedroom. Written out is more comfortable for me and while the first couple of times writing it I felt nervous, I've grown into it and share it readily.

Anonymous said...

I can't help it, but I laughed at Heather's comment 'before you're married'.
I also subscribe to the thought that all of us are naturally sexual beings. Why in the world would Twilight be popular otherwise? That book is chock full of sexual tension. People love it. We can relate to it (married or not). And it's quite a treat when you've been reading about two people falling in love (or even just lust) the entire book/series long. I think it's absolutely appropriate when written well and applied properly.
It can also be used to give a reader a horrifying experience (rape). Things like that also raise awareness and make you empathize.

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