In celebration (or something) of NaNoWriMo, I’ve written a series of columns full of writing advice and tips. This is one of them.
Time for me to dust off my soapbox and start talking about writing sex. As someone who’s had three erotica novels published (under a pseudonym), I think I know a little something about writing sex… but these six tips will be less about the mechanics and more about the philosophy, because that, I think, is where a little more attention needs to be paid.
6. If you haven’t done it, seriously consider not writing it. — This is an important tip that deserves to be higher than #6, but I wanted to get it out of the way quickly. If you haven’t had sex, you might want to consider not writing sex scenes — and if you haven’t had a certain kind of sex, you probably don’t want to include it. You’re more likely to write scenes the way you’ve read them, instead of the way they actually feel, and then you’ll put your own twist on them, and they’ll get more and more unrealistic as you go.
Yes, I know, lots of writers write from the other sex’s perspective, or write things they can’t possibly experience. I’ve written a lot of sex scenes from a woman’s point of view, and a fair bit of both male and female gay sex scenes. While I can’t possibly know what it would be like to experience sex as a gay woman, I suppose it’s conceivable that I would know what it would be like to do so as a gay man*, but having never had sex with a man, I don’t. What I do do, however, is extrapolate based upon what I do know — things I’ve learned from my partners, friends, and even writers’ forums where people talk about how to write better sex scenes.
5. Make it organic to the plot. — Unless you’re writing a PWP, your sex scenes need to make sense in the greater story that you’re telling. That means a canonically straight character doesn’t fall into bed with someone of the same sex just because of reasons; it also means you shouldn’t try to shoehorn sex into a story just for titillation purposes.
Even when you’re writing erotica, the sex has to make sense. These two (or more) people need to have a reason to fall into bed together, and you, as the writer, have to justify it to the reader. Sure, we love reading hot sex scenes, but you can’t just have your three main characters end up in a shower because you think it’s a good idea.
4. Realism is underrated. — Readers can go anywhere to read unrealistic sex scenes — scenes where the men all have enormous penises, scenes where the women all ejaculate during orgasm, scenes where no one ever makes an embarrassing noise or has a change of mind or gets a cramp because of a certain position. What they need from you is how your characters would realistically react during a sex scene — as well as what they’d really look like. Do a little research on the average size of the sexual organs your characters’ genotypes usually have**. The average male penis is just under six inches in length, but if you read enough fiction you’ll believe that all men are hugely endowed. Especially if you read Laurell K. Hamilton’s fiction***.
Yes, I know, sex scenes are a form of escapism. I get that. Hell, I’ve written that. But you as the writer also need your audience to identify with your characters, and the more realistic they are, the more likely that is to happen. Think about the sounds, smells, and discomforts during your last sexytime and then think about how you can incorporate that into your writing. It’ll be better for it. Trust me.
3. BDSM is hard to write. — This kind of goes back to #6 (if you haven’t done it, don’t write it), but BDSM is its own mess when it comes to writing it realistically. Though popular media would have you believe that all BDSM is leather, whips, chains, and super-dom men with super-sub women****. It’s really not, though. Your average BDSM practitioner can’t afford the stuff you’ve (unfortunately) read about in 50 Shades of Grey. Your average BDSM practitioner goes to the dungeon once a month, if that. And, most importantly, your average BDSM practitioner is a real, live person who is much more than just the sex acts s/he engages in. Adding BDSM adds an additional wrinkle that you have to research, try out, and determine if it really belongs in the story.
Yes, I know, I know, BDSM is hot, and fun, and still (somehow) edgy. And for those who are unaccustomed to it, it can be a scary and possibly dangerous place. If you’re going to explore BDSM for research purposes, I recommend going to a site like Fetlife, locating your local BDSM munch, and talking to the organizer. S/he will be glad to talk to you, and might be able to hook you up with someone who can explain things. You may even learn something about the dungeons you write about in your books — like, for example, the fact that they’re almost certainly nothing like what you pictured.
2. Bad sex is still good sex, when you write it right. — This one follows up on #4 (making it more realistic). Bad sex is embarrassing, frustrating, and often painful. Men sometimes can’t get it up, or face premature ejaculation problems, or can’t satisfy their partners. Women sometimes aren’t ready when their partners are, or are concerned about their appearances in bed, or can’t achieve orgasm because their partners can’t hit that one spot consistently. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t still write a good sex scene with those things in them. Flaws and foibles further character development.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having sex with someone you don’t love (or don’t plan to see ever again)*****, many stories with sex in them depend upon the fact that there’s likely to be a lasting relationship of some sort between the characters having sex. Don’t just have them have bad sex in a vacuum; have their histories work into the scene, and maybe show how they feel about each other beyond mashing their body parts together. Look, we’re all (hopefully) grown-ups here; we’ve all (probably) had sex at least a few times where it didn’t go the way we planned. Think about how you recovered from that and how it informed future sexual adventures with that partner. Then write about it.
1. Don’t put yourself into the sex scene. — You should never be the main character of your story — the Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Especially if the MC is going to have sex with a thinly-veiled version of someone the author lusts after. It’s obvious in the writing when this happens: things go super-perfectly, both characters fit together exactly right, and readers will notice a distinct similarity between one of the characters and the picture on the back of the book. There’s no challenge in writing a sex scene (or a story) like that, and it shows.
I fully admit that one of my novels is an exploration of what my life would have been like if it had gone another way, and if you read that novel (when it gets published) you’ll know exactly who I am in it. But I’m not the main character of the story, and I’m not the POV character, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve written anything where I’m the person who has sex on-screen in the story. You’ll find that it gets boring just writing wish-fulfillment pieces. You’ll find yourself revising them, polishing them, and hating them because you’re just reading about yourself, over and over. Don’t waste your time; make your MCs not be you.
I subscribe to an online library that often gets dumps of romance or erotica novels where the title is Verbed by the Adjective Male-Noun — Tamed by the Cowboy, Spanked by the CEO, Captured by the Highlander, and so on. I don’t read these because the titles play into something that comes up far too often in writing fiction with sex scenes in: a female character who clearly doesn’t want something to happen, but ends up enjoying it. Y’know what that is? Sexual Stockholm Syndrome. The male characters are violating the female characters’ consent, and just because the female characters eventually “give in” doesn’t make it right.
Annoyingly, these books continue to get published because people read them. And what does that say about people, then? Somehow, we as a western culture have made it “sexy” or “romantic” for a man in a position of power to dominate a woman in a submissive position (or even one that isn’t in a submissive position but secretly “wants” to be). In real life, I identify as a D-type (another term for “dominant”), but I have never — and will never — attempt to tame, spank, or capture a woman who hasn’t made it quite clear beforehand during negotiations that she wants one of those things.
Negotiations are sexy. Consent is sexy. Write that stuff into your stories; your readers will appreciate it.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
** Also consider that the average depth of the human vagina is 4.5 inches. Porn actresses train themselves to fully accept penises greater in length than average because it’s their jobs. But take it from me — even if a woman has been with a largely-endowed man, she’ll still love a normally-endowed man just as much. I’ve heard this from multiple women. And, for the love of whatever deity you believe in, a stretched-out vagina is not a thing. Stop listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
*** I pick on Hamilton a lot for her sex scenes because they are completely unrealistic — more so now because of the lycanthropes in the stories. But even fantasy creatures need to have legitimate bodies, and no one in a poly relationship with 5+ men is going to have every man be the size of a baseball bat. The law of averages has to balance out somewhere.