Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Characters, Sex, and the Characters They Have Sex With

I'm in the early stages of my first novel and I think that sex is almost needed. Writing about attraction and sexual impulses is just about the only aspect of writing that makes me uncomfortable to me. I don't want it to sounds awkward, out of place, or at all trashy. This fear is especially amplified by the fact that the first part of my novel takes place in a very conservative setting where sex means breeding, not sex. Do you have any advice concerning how I should approach "romance" portions? When do sex scenes make an auto-reject? Could you give source materials of novels that do sex well?

Oh, and do mainstream publishers care about homosexual relationships and sex scenes? I fear my chances of being published might be hindered because the plot currently involves a gay lead character.

I feel concerned about another aspect of the novel. It basically describes the ride and fall of this religion. Parts of the religion are hidden in books that the main character finds and reads. The character knows it's coming, but is it okay that I put what is contained in the book in a chapter placed before he starts reading it and when he is done? How often do you get this? Should I move these sections to the end of the novel?

So I'm going to try to answer this from the perspective of a potential publisher as opposed to the perspective of a writer. I think that would be more helpful to you.

1. As you no doubt have noticed, many many adult (and young adult, really) fiction that is not romance, erotica, or smut often contains sex. If this is a huge shock to you, go read more fiction. Any thriller with a male protagonist who has a sexy woman helping him should do. Publishers are not afraid of sex. The issue is how descriptive the sex is. Does it describe body parts using their proper medical names and in graphic detail, or is the entirety of the scene "he bent over to kiss her as he turned off the light"? Probably somewhere in between. Like in movies, how much sex is too much is generally something that's a judgment call for the editor, not because the editor thinks kids will be exposed to naughty bits (as concerns the movie councils) but because the editor might feel it distracts from the story.

2. No. The answer to your second question is no, we're not against gay protagonists for mainstream fiction. We just don't see a lot of it, because 90% of the country is straight, and straight people tend to write straight characters or disturbing mpreg slash fan fiction. There are a lot of great gay writers, some of whom don't write about being gay necessarily, or don't make it the central focus of the story but one of the plot points. Somewhere on my bookshelf is a set of lesbian detective stories, legitimate ones written by an actual lesbian who wanted to write queer thrillers. But we don't see a lot of these submissions, partially because there are just less gay writers than straight writers, and because it can be a smaller market depending on how central the homosexuality is to the story. I say, if you want to write it, totally go for it. I've had enough of smart academics solving mysteries, aided by sexy female lab assistants. There's no reason not to have sexy male lab assistants helping smart academics solving mysteries - and then, presumably, falling in love because of the intense experience they shared in that chase scene in the ancient Mayan ruins.

3. I didn't entirely follow your third question, but I think you have two potential situations: a situation where the reader knows the same amount as the character and a situation where the reader knows more than the character. (You can also have the character know more than the reader, a nifty dramatic device that can be annoying when done wrong) Whether you want to go in one direction or not is a question of suspense. If the reader knowing more than the character makes the character fall flat, then the reader will be annoyed and just start flipping through. If the reader's knowledge helps us understand the character's quest as they experience it better, go for it.


Elissa M said...

"The Joy of Writing Sex" by Elizabeth Benedict may be useful to you. Also, there is much good advice to be found on Romance sites and blogs, about writing in general as well as sex scenes specifically. There are also sites about gay and lesbian fiction. I don't have links because I don't write in these genre. Go exploring. That's what search engines are for.

Andrea Kirkby said...

Actually I find the subtext to one of your comments interesting. You note that there aren't many gay sex scenes as there aren't that many gay writers, and you then give examples of how a (presumably male) leader is 'assisted' by a delightful female character...

There aren't that many books where a woman is the lead character, and manages to get any nooky. That's very interesting... we still take it for granted the protagonist is male, except in certain female orientated genres.

The Rejecter said...

That's very true, Andrea. There are certainly as many female writers as male writers, but female writers seem to either write about guys or get categorized into "women's fiction" or the demeaning "chick lit."

I tend to write about guys. I don't know why that is.

kirsten saell said...

but female writers seem to either write about guys or get categorized into "women's fiction" or the demeaning "chick lit."

Ugh, Rejecter, don't even get me started on the number of even lesbian and bisexual woman authors who write exclusively about men--even (or especially) when it comes to sex.

I think there's a pervasive feeling that men are just more dynamic and interesting than women. And it's ironic that that feeling seems to come across even more in romance, a "women's genre" than in, say, fantasy or sci-fi, where you can actually find dynamic female characters who undergo a hero's journey. That is, even in romance, there are plenty of heroines, but few "female heroes".

It's as if women are not worthy of personhood in the context of fiction. Say what you want about chick-lit (god I hate that name), at least some of the books are about women as persons, rather than women as a foil for a manly hero or as a secondary character who might as well be cardboard.

That said, I have nothing against a woman prefering to write male protagonists. Just that I think it's indicative of the way we view men and women in general, and the fact that despite the women's movement, we're still living in a phallocentric society.

Heh, I think I need another glass of wine... :D

The Rejecter said...

Yes, it is kind of sad that we can't seem to write books about real women without them immediately being categorized as "women's literature." That implies everything else is "men's literature." I prefer to have female characters who are competent but their gender is not really an issue on any kind of level.

kirsten saell said...

That implies everything else is "men's literature."

Which is funny, since IIRC, female fiction readers seriously outnumber male.

I prefer to have female characters who are competent but their gender is not really an issue on any kind of level.

Me too, and having you put it that way makes me realize that's probably why most of the female protagonists I write in my fantasy romance are bisexual. They're almost gender-neutral in some very important ways. And always competent. :)




Anonymous said...

Try not to think of sex scenes as being obligatory. If you need them in order to show something important about your character(s), then go for it. If, on the other hand, you can just as easily do a fade-to-black and the story's none the worse for it, then that's fine too.

I've read way too many books in the mystery/crime/thriller genre where sex scenes are clearly added as fantasy wish fulfillment or for the benefit of the hoped-for movie adaptation. Those tend to stop the action cold. Don't go there.

Gay sex scenes have an added burden to bear: the ick factor a goodly number of people still feel when confronted with the mechanics of gay sex. Just as with straight sex scenes, ask yourself: do we learn anything germane about the character(s) by watching what he/she/they do in bed? If not, then it's just as extraneous as the pointless driving-to-work scene or the pointless waking-showering-eating-breakfast scene.

If you do go for it, read the entries in the Literary Review's "Bad Sex in Fiction" awards so you know what not to do. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

On the other subject: writing about female protags doesn't automatically earn you the label "chick lit writer." No one considers Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski series or Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books to be "women's literature."

Writing about a female protag who obsesses about shoes, shopping, her waistline and her boyfriend is how you earn the "chick lit" badge (ref. Candace Bushnell, Plum Sykes, et al).

Unfortunately, a great many female writers insist on creating female MCs who are weak, self-defeating, overemotional and overinvolved with ephemera. And unfortunately, those writers do very well with female readers (Helen Fielding, anyone?). I can guarantee that a convention of straight men who read Bridget Jones' Diary or Bergdorf Blondes could be held in a phone booth. Shouldn't female readers be held to account also?

So, Rejecter, IMHO your formula is the right way to go: write about strong women who are competent and smart and do something other than pursue the perfect LBD. Readers of both genders will thank you for it.

Anna Russell said...

Writing a sex scene is always tricky to me. They can be necessary sometimes, but I never want to go the "hey, boobies, this will sell" route and as you so rightly stated too far the other way can get you the "chick-lit" tag (shudder).
It's interesting to read what you say about gay fiction. It wasn't till I read your post that I realised I've never really read much - you just don't see it that often. I thought the success of Tipping the Velvet would perhaps change things, but it doesn't seem to have done so.

Anonymous said...

I have a request for The Rejecter: when you have the time, I'd like to read your opinions about 1st vs. 3rd person in novels. Which do agents like, which do you like, pros, cons, and so on.

About Me said...

Sex scenes just like any other scenes should happen naturally. Think of your characters when you write scenes. How would they describe 'things' that are happening, which termiology would they use? Are they shy, reserved characters? Bold, experimental? How much of their intimate life would they like revealed?

Plus, as I mentioned some where else, I can't stand pages and pages of sex scenes, I don't see how it really adds to the novel, but something on the shorter side is okay. I always think that the focus on any scene should be the emotions or reaction its brings out in your characters. So think of it like this, if your book isn't erotica or romance and your prag. isn't just having sex just to be having sex, then point out aspects that are important to him.

Julian said...

I can certainly sympathize with anyone thinking about a sex scene or even sex in general in their work. We all know authors who favor sex in favor of plot and it's very frustrating to say the least.

Is it just me, or are women simply *better* at writing sex than men? I've found it very valuable to have a female friend read any sex scenes I've written in hopes of getting good feedback -- whether it was too much, too little, etc.

Anyone else think this is true? I don't mean to stereotype but when it comes to the horizontal mambo I think women know more than men ever will!

Daniel C. Starr said...

With regard to sex scenes, the best advice still seems to be found on Sean Lindsey's "101 reasons to stop writing" website: 90 percent of all sex scenes could be replaced by "and then they did it" with no harm to the story. If that's the case, spare us poor suffering readers the "erotic" (or perhaps neurotic) details.

Re the third question, about quoting books that the main character is reading, I see this as being not so much a matter of "what the reader knows" vs. "what the character knows" as it is a matter of formatting lengthy expositions. Is it OK to write, "Fred opened the book and read..." followed by a five page quote from the book Fred's reading? Is there a standard typographic convention (indentation, italics, etc.) for setting off such quoted material? Should the quoted stuff be in its own chapter? Or maybe in an appendix (as Tolkein did in "Return of the King")? It strikes me as similar to the problem of lengthy flashbacks, or stories that one character tells to another--how do you put this information on the page in a non-boring manner?

Stacia said...

With regard to sex scenes, the best advice still seems to be found on Sean Lindsey's "101 reasons to stop writing" website: 90 percent of all sex scenes could be replaced by "and then they did it" with no harm to the story.

I don't agree with that at all, or rather, I guess it's true but it shouldn't be. If the sex your characters are having is so bland, emotionless, and free of feeling and emotion that you can replace it with "and then they did it," then your characters shouldn't be having sex at all.

A sex scene should show us something about the characters and their relationship that we didn't already know, and that we can't discover any other way; it should deepen both the relationship and the story. If it doesn't, there is little point in those people having sex.

"And then they did it" is telling. It turns sex into backstory and makes half of what happens afterwards an infodump. Sex should change their relationship and the way they relate to each other on every level, and you should show us those changes as they happen.

Cutting out the sex and writing "and then they did it" is the same as cutting out any other action scene that drives the story forward and saying, for example, "and then the bad guys showed up and they fought and won." For that matter, why write a story at all? Why not just have the entire book be "Some bad stuff happened, but they won in the end"?

Anonymous said...

It isn't a matter of characters having sex that's "bland, emotionless and free of feeling". They may enjoy the sex enormously. But do the readers need to go through the fit-Tab-A-into-Slot-B blow-by-blow particulars?

Characters having sex doesn't necessarily drive the story forward. I doubt any of us can say that every sexual experience we've had has brought about profound changes in our lives; why must it do so for characters, especially ones who have an ongoing sexual relationship?

December/Stacia says, "A sex scene should show us something about the characters and their relationship that we didn't already know, and that we can't discover any other way." Precisely so. But there's a difference between letting readers know that two (or more) characters have sex, and forcing the readers to watch them do so for no good reason other than to have a sex scene.

Think about food. We don't slavishly describe every meal a character has unless there's something to be learned from what's on the menu or the way he/she eats it. The character's experience of a ten-course gourmet dinner in a palace will be far different than that of eating raw rat in the dungeon, and both experiences will probably advance the character's arc and set up or resolve a story point. But beyond that, we don't describe every hamburger or bowl of cereal (at least, not if we want the reader to keep reading).

There are sexual experiences that can be life-changing: the first one or the wedding night, for instance. Learning that the muscle-bound he-man hero wears lingerie and lipstick in bed, or that the buttoned-up female CEO likes to wear frilly pink teddies and be spanked, may be good reasons to watch characters in bed. Unless you're writing erotica, though, sometimes sex is hamburger/bowl-of-cereal sex and doesn't need pages of play-by-play.

December/Stacia should reread the Sean Lindsey quote; it says "90 percent of all sex scenes could be replaced by 'and then they did it'." Quite so, just like 90% of all eating/driving to work/taking a shower & shaving scenes. The remaining 10% should get the pages they need. The biggest challenge is figuring out what fits in the 10%.

Anonymous said...

So basically Questioner, you want to write the next Da Vinci Code only with, like, you know, deep gay relationships and stuff, and make hecka $$$?

The Son of Christ: The New Millennium said...

My book is more comprehensive than the Da Vinci code. I'm not sure what you are referring to by deep relationships. I have a serious organization. Darryl.

Anonymous said...

"There are sexual experiences that can be life-changing: the first one or the wedding night, for instance...Unless you're writing erotica, though, sometimes sex is hamburger/bowl-of-cereal sex and doesn't need pages of play-by-play."

I think this is a good way to distinguish between gratuitous sex scenes and meaningful ones. For instance, if two characters have sex for the first time, it would make sense to describe it in more detail than "they had sex". As the reader, if this relationship has been drawn out, you want to be there to experience this next step in their relationship, right? But I don't think it takes away from the story to add later something like "they did it like rabbits the entire next week". That way you get the idea that they're still having a lot of sex without several gratuitous sex scenes.