I've been invited to post regularly on the wonderful Women and Words blog, and I've just hit the "publish" button on my first holding-forth. Whee! I don't intend to overemphasize erotica, but this time my theme is "Sex Scenes Without Fear" (You can read it without fear--nothing X-rated. Yet. )
Here's what I posted:
Sex Scenes without Fear
Hi readers and writers, I’m Sacchi Green, and I’ve been invited to play in this literary sandbox with you. In the future I promise not to concentrate too heavily on the erotica side of the force, even though that’s where I do most of my writing and editing, with six-going-on-seven anthologies in print. The most recent ones are from Cleis Press; Girl Crazy, Lesbian Coming Out Erotica (2009), Lesbian Cowboys (2009, winner of a Lambda Literary Award), Lesbian Lust (2010), and Lesbian Cops (April of 2011). I can be found online on FaceBook (Sacchi Green), Live Journal (http://sacchig.livejournal.com/), Lesbian Fiction Forum (Sacchi, http://www.lesbianfiction.org/) and http://sacchi-green.blogspot.com .
As I said, I won’t talk all that much about erotica, but this first time I’ll start out playing here with the toys I’m most accustomed to. (Hi there, those of you with dirty minds! Glad to see you! But I won’t be talking about that sort of toy here.)
So here’s just a bit of a chapter I contributed to Fran Walker’s Lavender Ink: Writing and Selling Lesbian Fiction from Bedazzled Ink (Chapter 10), titled, obviously, “Sex Scenes”.
What is it about sex scenes in books? Our culture’s conflicted attitudes toward sex are not only reflected, but magnified, in our reactions to the very idea of writing or reading about sex. No other section of a book, except, possibly, the ending, inspires so much flipping through the pages. Some readers avidly find the “good parts” and devour them first, while others make sure they know which pages to avoid. And it’s equally true that some writers can’t wait to get working on the erotic bits, while others, pressured to include them by editors or by their own assessments of the market, avoid writing them until everything else has been done and they can’t procrastinate any longer.
I won’t try to tell you, as a writer, that whatever method you use is wrong. If you can make it work, that’s great. But I will tell you what kind of reader you should write for: one who opens herself to your characters, gets drawn into their lives and emotions, and follows wherever the story leads because it’s so compelling that she can’t bear to miss a word. Not even words she might usually avoid.
Your first responsibility is to give this reader what she needs. Being true to your characters is just as essential, but you’ve seduced the reader into some degree of identification with your POV character, so it amounts to the same thing. And what she needs, besides an emotional bond that intensifies into a physical one, is a scene that flows naturally from what comes before and advances the characterization and story arc at least as much as any other element of the work.
Sex scenes serve many purposes beyond satisfying an editor who believes that they sell books. Erotic interchanges can be as revelatory of character as any other basic human activity, and more so than most, since they deal with heightened emotions and senses and, in some cases, heavily weighted baggage from past experience. If you’ve already developed your characters fully, aspects of their personalities and histories can be emphasized in sex scenes, but you may also find that these scenes provide ways to slip in details not revealed in calmer moments. Shyness or confidence, impulsiveness or self-control, tenderness, vulnerability, repression, unapologetic sensuality; these are only a few of the traits that can surface in the heat of a sexual encounter. The characters may even surprise themselves with their own reactions.
The sex scene can also serve less complex purposes. Sometimes your characters (and the reader) just need to have a really good time, whether as a counterpoint to the stresses of whatever else is happening in your story or as a pacing device to vary the mood from scene to scene. And eventually you have to deliver the implicitly promised payoff to all the emotional and erotic tension you’ve been building.
You have been building erotic tension, haven’t you? It’s a huge mistake to think of a sex scene as a single obligatory lump of action inserted into your story with no relevance to the rest, sticking out like a sore thumb. (Yes, that’s an unforgivable cliché. Yes, I could think of several metaphors more in keeping with our topic, but I’ll leave those as an exercise for the reader.)
[About 2000 words clipped for length, and to spare those who’d rather read sex scenes than see them analyzed.]
That’s really all I can tell you in general terms about writing sex scenes, and I suspect you knew it all already, on one level or another. Create characters, setting, plot, and sensory details that draw the reader into the story, and when a sex scene is the natural next step, focus on feelings. Do it just as you would in any other part of the story, but even more so, because there is something very special about sex scenes.