In theory, I have no problem writing sex scenes. The first story I wrote that got any recognition was about a girl having sex with a guy she just met, in a disabled toilet, at her aunt’s funeral. I am not squeamish. But that’s literary fiction. That’s when sex serves a purpose, to show the breaking down of walls, or the attempted escape from reality. Sometimes it’s symbolic of trying to feel alive. I can write sex scenes when they’re symbolic.
But when I first started writing The Last Word, I had to consider what level I wanted to write at, in terms of sexuality. I’ve read a lot of really explicit stuff, and I’ve read things that fade to black. I tried for somewhere in between. The truth is, sex is weird. It’s a lot of strange mechanics and actions that are difficult to write about, because you have to imbue some sort of passion and emotion. If you’re just writing ‘then her hand goes here’, that gets to the point, but doesn’t make the reader care. Some of the best sex scenes I’ve read come from really old novels, where the build up is the most important thing. And I think that’s true of chick lit too- sex is the pay-off for many chapters’ worth of sexual tension. If you write a book where your love interests are at it before they’ve even interacted at all, well, I’m not really interested.
I suppose that’s a female thing, that we want sex to mean something. That’s a generalisation, but in terms of readers of chick lit, I’d say it’s a safe assumption. Sex should be passionate and engaging and emotional. I couldn’t resist it in this book, that it should become symbolic again. All of my female characters seem to have trust issues, and sex is a form of trust. Letting someone in, being vulnerable, all that character development comes from sex scenes. Plus, I think we have a duty as writers to show what sex is really like. I remember as a teenager watching that Britney Spears movie, Crossroads, when they fade to a sunset after she kisses this topless guy, and thinking: this is clearly not what a first time is like. Doesn’t mean there can’t be love or passion, but awkward and uncomfortable are two big contenders there. And it can be funny, and strange and you can sound different to how you do normally.
One of my biggest peeves with Fifty Shades of Gray (of which I have bazillions) was that Christian Gray went from being all stiff upper lip, very ‘proper’ dialogue, to all ‘yeah baby’ in the bedroom. Your characters are still your characters in the sack. Don’t revert to stereotypes just because they’re boinking. Which is clearly not the biggest problem with that book, but was something that jumped out at me.
So, I did have trouble, writing the first few sex scenes, and as I got more confident in them, I explored different situations. Some of them worked, and some of them had to go. One in particular involved such an awful play on words and a reference to oral sex that I actually shouted ‘oh gross’ when I read it through in edits, and scratched it through in red pen five times.
Who are your favourite writers who deal with sex scenes, what do you expect from them, and how do you find writing them?