The Dreaded Sex Scene

The Dreaded Sex Scene

Long ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I work-shopped a novel in an online writing workshop. One of the draws of the workshop was the “Editor’s Choice”: a professional critique given by the editor in residence to two lucky selections a month. I had the honor of having a chapter selected as “Editor’s Choice” one month. The editor was a scifi writer that I hugely respect. His critique, in retrospect, was kind and encouraging. At the time, it literally made me puke. Several times.

Why? Because he’d chosen a sex scene to review. It was the first sex scene I’d posted in public, anywhere. I was incredibly uncomfortable posting it, and incredibly uncomfortable with his review. I focused on the one negative thing he said to the exclusion of all else, decided I couldn’t write sex scenes, and didn’t publish another sex scene for several years.

Then I got over myself.

Sex is fundamental to the human experience. Whether we’re having it, thinking about having it, not having it, wanting to have it, or wanting to have it with someone different, sex defines much of our thinking between puberty and death. It follows for me that writing which concerns itself with the human experience, is necessarily concerned with sex. I’ve always liked this Gertrude Stein quote on the subject:

The literature that I want to read addresses sex, one way or another. It may not show it explicitly, but I rather prefer it when it does. Graphic violence, horror, gore, doesn’t bother me. Why should graphic sex? I suspect it’s just the lingering Puritan in me. Time to shed that particular lineage.

Given that sex is so fundamental, why are sex scenes so hard to write well? The “Editor’s Choice” review I got was a review of my chapter, but it was really about the difficulty of writing an effective sex scene. It’s a tightrope. Err too far on the side of clinical description and the sex scene becomes decidedly unsexy, even creepy (which can be fine if you’re writing horror – some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read were the sex scenes in Nancy Collin’s Sonya Blue and Wild Blood series). But on the other end of the scale is soft-soaping the sex scene down to where the reader isn’t sure what went where, when or why. Quite the tightrope.

Although my books are full of sex scenes, I actually find them incredibly difficult to write. I labor over sex scenes, writing and rewriting them. I’ve abandoned stories because I’ve gotten stuck on sex scenes. But I’ve also had incredibly positive feedback on the sex scenes I’ve exposed to the public eye. So what makes a sex scene work?

  • Pitch it right. Like Gertrude Stein, I prefer graphic sex scenes, but I appreciate that not all genres, or even all stories, fit graphic sex scenes. If the story glosses over graphic violence, gore, etc., then a graphic sex scene doesn’t “fit” and feels gratuitous.
  • Advance the plot or characterization. I’m totally fine with plot-less erotica on its own, but not as part of a story with plot. A sex scene can advance the story in a lot of ways. It can be a plot point, or reveal some detail of characterization. Sex can be intimate – it can bring characters together. Or it can be alienating and drive them apart. But the story or characters should not be the same coming out of the sex scene as they were going in. If they are, then the sex scene has actually stalled the story and maybe it doesn’t belong there.
  • Make it “climactic.” This has nothing to do with orgasms (sorry). Most sex scenes are the culmination of some interaction between the characters. It may be the apotheosis of a long flirtation, or it may be the result of a quick bargain (as in the beginning of Snowburn). However it comes about, it should feel like a climax (whether or not the characters do!).
  • Throw in a twist. Sex has been done and done and done (for thousands of years). I’ve read a lot of sex scenes and the ones that stand out in my mind have some extra element. Whether it’s the emotional “high stakes” of the sex, or a surprising position or kink, or a very beautiful description, it’s that “something more” which makes me want to re-read it. That’s true of every scene and every story, of course, but I think it’s particularly important for sex scenes, which can easily become dull or repetitive.

Anything I’ve missed? What do you look for in a sex scene? What turns you off when you read a bad one? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Haunted by Shari Nichols

Haunted by Shari Nichols

It’s my pleasure to welcome Shari Nichols to my blog for the release of her new paranormal romance, Haunted!

Here’s an excerpt:

Karly made sure to keep her head down, wanting to avoid another run-in. Her gaze skittered over fallen leaves and flagstone tiles. Through the corner of her eye, she spotted a man in a suit and a few servers. Her fingers tightened around her key chain with every step, wanting to be far from the chaos of the evening.

She was almost to the main street, when she bumped into a solid wall of muscle that threatened to knock her on her ass. Her keys flew from her hands as she began to fall backward. Before she hit the ground, two strong hands reached out and caught her around the waist. She glanced up and into the gorgeous face of the god she’d seen earlier.

Up close, he was even more stunning and taller than she’d calculated. He exuded strength and masculinity, and when he focused that intense magnetism on her, all the air left her lungs, along with her ability to speak.

Genuine concern flashed in his whiskey colored eyes. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?” His voice was like warm chocolate, melting her insides. When he dropped his hands, Karly could still feel the imprints on her skin.

“Y-yes, I’m fine. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.” Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. The man smelled incredible, like sandalwood and clean laundry.

“No need for apologies. Maybe you should sit down for a minute and have a drink with me.” There was elegance in the way he spoke that made her think of old money and private school.

For a moment Karly thought about taking him up on his offer, but she wasn’t in the frame of mind to pull off light conversation or flirty banter at this point. “Thanks, but I have to pass. This night, well, it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped so I think it’s my cue to go.” She did her best to school her features, but inside she was feeling raw and vulnerable. The only thing she wanted to do was go home, soak in a hot bath, and lick her wounds.

His searing gaze swept over her and made butterflies flutter in her stomach “Perhaps I can make it better. Stay and have a drink with me.”

Karly glanced at his jacket for his nametag, but like her, he wasn’t wearing one. “I’m guessing you’re in either sales or politics, and if this is all for a campaign donation, I’m sorry, I already gave at the office.” Immediately she got a vibe telling her he was his own boss, which wasn’t hard to figure out. The man exuded confidence and power.

The throaty sound of his laughter raised goose bumps on her flesh. “So you’re funny and beautiful that’s quite a rare combo, Miss….?”

His words slid over her like a warm caress. A flush spread across her cheeks. She shook her head, a little dazed by the compliment. It would be hard not to succumb to his charms. If she was honest, his scent alone was driving her crazy. No, the man spelled danger. “I’m sorry. I should go. Good night and uh, nice running into you.” She sucked in a breath, turned and took a step toward the street.

“I don’t think you’ll get far without these,” he said in a bone-melting voice that forced her to turn around. He held up her keys in his hand.

“Right. Thanks.” She’d become so dazzled by his looks, she’d completely forgotten about them flying out of her hands

“My pleasure.” The way he said the word pleasure conjured images of their bodies tangled together, rolling around in satin sheets. The air sizzled with sexual tension. Slowly, he closed the distance between them and placed the keys in her hands. She purposely avoided touching him, but his fingers grazed hers, sending a spark of awareness up and down her arm.

“Don’t go,” he whispered.

“Why?” Karly was curious to hear what he’d say next.

“I can’t let you disappear into the night without telling me your name.” The words were spoken in a commanding tone that normally would’ve irritated her, but for some reason when he said them they hit every one of her buttons. “You can give me that much can’t you? It’s not every day I meet someone that captivates me and you have, quite thoroughly I might add.”

The scorching heat in his gaze made her shiver. She swallowed and tried to regain her equilibrium. It’d been a long time since a man had looked at her with such blatant desire. “I’m impressed— that’s quite a pick-up line. I’m curious, does it usually work?”

His smile was pure sin. “I’m not using a line on you. I just want the chance to talk to you. Give me five minutes, that’s all I ask.”

What happens after that?” His charisma began to melt her resolve. Karly stole a glance at his clothing. His sweater looked like cashmere and his suit jacket was perfectly tailored and cut to fit his body, only adding to his commanding presence.

“You decide. If you want to continue the conversation, I get your number, if not, then we part ways. No harm done.”

How could she say no when his approach was so refreshing “Nothing like cutting to the chase.” A guy that looked like him probably had women falling all over themselves to get his attention. It didn’t take a psychic to glean the man was a player. He was too smooth to be anything else. “Five minutes is all you get.”

“Five minutes is all I need.” He was persuasive, not to mention cocky as hell and yet for some reason she couldn’t seem to say no where he was concerned. Besides, his vibe was positive and cool with no warning signs.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself. Do you always get what you want?”

 Want more? Haunted is available now from Liquid Silver press, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon!

Don’t forget to stalk Shari! Check out her blog, on Instagram, Facebook and Goodreads, and sign up for her newsletter!

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