Have I lost my mind? I can’t help feeling that a writer talking about sex is a bit like an actor working with children and animals – the writer is unlikely to come off best! But having read Catherine Czerkawska’s post over at Authors Electric I realised that although we can all think of examples of ‘bad sex’ in novels – (or have it thrust under our noses) it’s rare for anyone to talk about what makes good sex in fiction. And since like Catherine, I have also been complimented on my talent for sex on the page, maybe it’s time to give out some advice. And since time’s quite short in this season of manic domesticity, I’m not going to trawl the classics, old or new, but just use things I’ve come across recently, i.e. mostly my own writing. Brave? Foolhardy? Yes, here is my neck, dear reader, and it’s on the line.
First of all, before we get down to specifics, all writing is about context, first of all the general context of genre and period, but since I write (so far) contemporary fiction, I think that the notion of ‘closing the bedroom door’ isn’t really going to wash and the writer has to bite the bullet somehow or other.
Then there’s the specific context of character and plot which makes it almost unfair to rip a passage out of a book and subject it to ridicule when it probably worked perfectly well in terms of the character’s and the reader’s emotional journey. And don’t forget not all sex scenes are meant to get the reader hot under the collar (or elsewhere) – some are actually meant to be comical, scary or whatever.
So now I’m going to but my neck on the line and take a couple of examples which I think (hope!) work and think about why.
A Kettle of Fish
Context – Ailsa is desperate for sexual experience . She likes Ian, though he’s probably not the love of her life but until now they just haven’t had the chance to go ‘all the way’. Now they’re at a party in a house out of town.
As soon as we were alone, Ian took charge, backing me over to the wall and kissingme hard. Dancing in front of Andy had turned me on and now the need for sex was running through me like water. My legs no longer wanted to hold me up, but I had Ian on one side and the wall on the other. With one arm around my shoulders he used the other to hoist my skirt up over my bum and reach between my legs. He was breathing like a train. I felt for his flies and released him like I’d been doing it all my life, moving my pink lace thong aside to guide him in. He was wet and so was I. It was going to be fine.
If this works (you may disagree!) why does it? Here’s what I think.
1. Tell it like it is. Get the detail right so that reader knows exactly what’s going on. You can be oblique if you but don’t be deliberately vague or the reader just feels short-changed.
2. Get something in that’s reasonably fresh and a bit surprising. Sex is hardly new, but writing should be. ‘Hoist’ rather than lift. ‘Breathing like a train’, which isn’t so much a literary simile as an expression Ailsa might use but I think is reasonably lively. In a book I’ve just read (Avis Randall’s earthy Somerset saga A Drift of Daisies) a nipple is ‘hard as a hazelnut.’ Different, surprising, good!
2. BUT don’t get too detailed, in particular don’t get anatomical. Use some (but not too much!) finesse. ‘Released him’ should be explicit enough without making us visualise something I personally don’t think has that much visual appeal (you mean it’s just me?) In other words, avoid the ‘throbbing penis’
3. Stay in character. This is a first person novel and so it needs to sound something like an eighteen-year-old, i.e. bum rather than – buttocks? thsi is also my excuse for the lack of metaphor or simile.
She rested her feet on his chest and teased his nipples with her cyclamen-painted toes. George sat upright, shuddering with wild anticipation, then he lowered his head until his searching tongue found its way beneath the miniscule triangle of lemon-coloured nylon.‘I don’t need no bloody yoghurt’, he whispered hoarsely.
Brilliant! The clash of cyclamen and lemon is spot-on for Sheila. The yoghurt reminds us of the period of sexual liberation and invention. And since we are in the male POV I’m almost prepared to forgive the thr*bb*ing p*n*s that follows in the next line (just not the p. word please!)
Now I hear you objecting that neither of these passages is a romantic sex scene, but there’s no stopping me now, so here’s another I made earlier, this time from my first novel which is a much more romantic affair.
Context – Alec and Isobel have fancied each other for ages but he is married with a baby son. Isobel has tracked him down to an obscure chateau in France where he is temporary sole custodian. They’ve now been alone together for several hours but have still only managed one kiss.
She slid her arms around him and they resumed the interrupted kiss, untrammelled by doubt. She ran her hands over his shoulder muscles then curled her fingers in his hair, feeling the shape of his skull where it met the top of his neck. He tightened his grip on her and she could feel the metal studs of his jeans through her cotton skirt. She was slick with desire and thought she might lean back against the wall and take the skirt off and they would do it here and now on the bare floor under the chandelier. The thought shocked her and she drew away, shaking, holding on to his arms to steady herself. He sighed and touched her throat then kissed it. She shivered and felt her legs sway. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I heard a car. I have to go and open up.’ He kissed her once more on the mouth, but without abandonment. He took her hand and drew her after him. She followed on wobbly legs, her other hand touching her mouth.
I wrote this many years ago no now but in retrospect it’s not too bad. I like the feel of the studs and the use of ‘skull’ and ‘throat’ work quite well. I think ‘do it here and now’ is reasonable explicit while in character. Is ‘slick with desire’ – a bit of a cliché? I’ll let myself off on the grounds its finesse’s female physiology in a way that Ailsa’s down-to earth ‘He was wet and so was I.’ certainly doesn’t. What really troubles me rereading this is how Alec could actually have left at that point, but then he always did lack something as a hero! (You’ll be pleased to know that they do eventually do it, by the way, and if you really want to you can read that bit too. )
Are there really are any rules? writing sex is always walking a tight-rope of giving enough detail to make it real but not so much as to wring out whatever magic we want to inject. What works in one place might belly-flop elsewhere.
Above all the writer must be comfortable describing the scene. In these two novels I enjoyed writing the sex, but in the one I’m writing now (set in Victorian Edinburgh) sex simply hasn’t arisen and I’m not sure that it will.
And a final thought. If you decide to skip the sex scene, skip it entirely. There’s nothing worse IMO than vague generalisation like this one by Hilary Boyd. ‘Their love-making was beyond anything she could have imagined’ – which to me simply suggests a lack of imagination.
Compare and contrast Margaret Drabble in The Waterfall. (After weeks of mounting tension as heroine gets over childbirth, James finally creeps into her bed). We are told only that ‘when he touched her she was unresisting’ then we go straight to ‘she wept later in amazement.’ The reaction reveals the experience.
Yes, yes, yes.
I’m interested to know if you think these passages are okay, or what your idea of good sex on the page might be. Meanwhile I’m off to take cover from the ensuing spam storm!