Friday, August 15, 2014

The P***S Mightier than the Sword, or How to Approach Sex in Your Writing

It’s no surprise to say that sex sells, in movies, in media, and in books. Despite all the author/publisher rights’ debates recently, Harlequin Romances are still selling; people want to read about others having sex.

Erotica, by definition, excites, plain and simple.

But how do you handle it in your books? It’s all well and good to want to tantalize your readers or explore a more racy side to your writing, but what about when your friends, and God-forbid, parents and children read the sex scenes in your book? Should you edit them out based on that personal audience, or should those bodices keep ripping? (Excuse me while I choke on my coffee)

As an author, you have several options:
          1.      Use a Pseudonym
          2.      Be Discreet
          3.      Refuse to Care


J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, the Bronte Sisters, Michael Seeley. All of these authors have used pseudonyms. Some noms de plume have become far more famous than their owner’s true identity (Mark Twain as an obvious example). The reasons for using them are varied, but one major option to consider is that whatever you write won’t be tied to your true identity, which makes this option very attractive if you’d like to experiment. 

I’ve written (and published) erotica under a pen name. I don’t feel I betrayed my craft, and I’m not embarrassed admitting it. However, this other writer’s work isn’t Michael Seeley’s. It’s separated, and likely, very few will ever know the truth about it. I wanted to work on writing love-making scenes, and this seemed an easy way to get feedback without the risk of pigeon-holing my writing into a category. 

As a pseudonym, you have absolute freedom to explore new sides to your writing and develop characters you wouldn’t normally write about. As a pseudonym, you’re allowed to play freely with your words. No one will be able to judge you, because you’re shielded. 

On the other hand, you (the real you) won’t get the credit for your writing. Unless your pen-name leaks, no one will ever give you public affirmation for the hard work of your writing, and this applies for all pseudonyms, not just those constructed to write sex scenes. It’s a tradeoff, and you have to decide if it’s worth it.

Be Discreet

In discussing sex scenes with another writer, he gave me his perspective. “It’s like that scene in Gone with the Wind. Scarlet gets carried to the bedroom, the door closes, and the scene fades. Everyone knows what’s going to happen. We don’t need to see it to imagine it.” 

He’s right. Your readers are intelligent. If you give them enough, they’ll fill in the gaps. Sometimes there’s no need to be explicit, only suggestive. If you’re embarrassed about writing about sex, you can skirt about that and still give your audience the warm feeling to mull over. 

I too have tried this method. My Uprising Trilogy has marriage and the obvious festivities which follow. I led the characters into the bedroom, allowed the reader to see them fumbling with cravats and petticoats, and then cut the scene. People knew what was happening; there was excitement. But I used nothing explicit, and the scene would fit well in any PG-13 movie.

Sometimes the middle road is just what’s needed.

Refuse to Care
And sometimes it’s not. 

I read an article where a romance author expressed her own nervousness over sex scenes. She thought of her grandmother walking in and reading over her shoulder, arching an eyebrow. It was debilitating. Then, she imagined changing the scenes for her grandma, and suddenly, the characters were flat. By imposing outside morals, by changing how the characters interacted and operated in their independent world, this author had destroyed the integrity of those creations. She realized that to do so would be disingenuous, and she owed more to the countless hours of her own work than to another’s moral scheme. 

Don’t get me wrong; there’s certainly a place for morals, for judgment of characters, and for removing offensive content (glorifying rape, exploitation, and child pornography, etc). How could there not be? But authenticity is different, especially when dealing with competent, consenting adults.
In The Gods’ Punishment, my novel about Alcibiades and the tumultuous Peloponnesian War he kindled, I faced a similar problem. Alcibiades was driven by sex, by his passions. He was known as a prodigious lover. Athens was filled with his current- and ex-lovers. He even sired a bastard with the Spartan queen. To censure the writing and remove sex, to choose to be discreet, would have been disingenuous. Alcibiades, known throughout history as a playboy, would sound false if the scene faded before its inevitable climax.  

That left one other option: refuse to care.
I refused to care about raised eyebrows. My novel contains multiple, explicit sex scenes. And it does so, because avoiding them would be wrong. 

As a writer, you have to evaluate what the sex scene does for your novel and how explicit to make it based on your goals. If it serves a purpose — be it to tantalize your audience or develop characters — then there is indeed a valid argument for keeping it. Now, you simply have to weigh whether or not pursuing those goals is worth offending parts of your audience. 

Be true to your writing and your characters; the rest will fall in line.

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