Saturday, February 23, 2008

SEX SEX SEX (Writing) LIVE NUDE GIRLS (and) SEX SEX SEX

Down on Century Boulevard, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, there is a huge marquee which, as long as I can remember (and, no, that's really longer than last week) , has announced that within, for a certain fee, we might behold upon the premises (pause for intake of breath from the audience) LIVE NUDE GIRLS.

My late aunt, Bernie Child, was fond of observing that this ought to be a concept universally appealing, at least if it were contrasted to the opportunity to see DEAD NUDE GIRLS.

But, then, my aunt was a nutjob. Clearly a relative. I miss her deeply.

But that’s a little off-topic. What I hoped to respond to was the whole issue of sex scenes. This has come up (no pun intended, and that little editorial remark suggests why this is a major issue in self-conscious modern writing) in the immediate blogosphere...mentioned by writers ranging from Tim Stretton, to Emma Darwin, to Ms. Susan Hill herself. So it’s a (shit, here we go again with double entendres), umm, hot topic with writers. Even if they fear it. In a time of sexual freedom, many writers have gone frigid (though not necessarily the three aforementioned sex kittens. Or sex toms, if Tim prefers.)

Me, I love sex scenes, simply because they are the ultimate high-wire act. You instantly have everyone’s attention. Okay, ya big jerk--how you gonna to play it? I've always loved having sweaty palms.

The problem is that in sex scenes most writers seem to forget everything they ever learned about writing. They romp off into abstractions, or get overly clinical. Writers who choose words with precision suddenly fall back on cliché. And the rules that even the most reluctant observer of rules will admit have validity—interest, tension, originality—suddenly fly out the window. Hemingway, who, whatever you think of his prose overall, was certainly a breaker of rules, wrote sex scenes that wouldn’t pass muster in a 1950s confessions magazine (“Did the earth move for you, too?” Umm, well, frankly, not so much.)

I’m hardly one to be lecturing. My first published novel. Shock and Awe, only has one real sex scene, and certainly not one of my favorites. It's not a sexy book. I couldn’t have crammed in a second sex scene, even if publication would have depended on it (and, luckily, it didn’t). And the scene I included involved a man having sex with a woman who was probably as strong, physically, as he was, and who was certainly a hell of a lot more centered than he was…all of this giving it a certain homoerotic overtone—and, one hopes, making it interesting to the reader.

But the rest of my books are far more sex-laden. (I like to think it’s because it was appropriate. But maybe it’s just, well…you know, an issue I need to deal with. But, as St. Anthony prayed, Lord, give me chastity…but don’t give it now.) My soon-to-be-published novel Tomorrowville. which was written far before Shock and Awe, has more sex: because it is demanded by the story line, and because it’s (I think) funny, too—futuristic, bio-augmented sex, sometimes accompanied by unexpected impotence, plus sex affected by the medications one of the participants has been prescribed. Part of the story? You betcha. Fun to write? You betcha. Effective? Hey, buy the book next year, ya slackers.

I had a novel, A Map of the Edge, (told from the POV of a 15-year-old boy) which was praised yet rejected by several agents, one of whom commented, “…but just too much sex and drugs…” even though the sex-drenched first three chapters were what led him to request the full manuscript. Well, I don’t think it was sex or drugs that caused the problem. If you didn’t like the sex or drugs, you wouldn’t have requested the manuscript. Oh, sure, I admit the story might have totally run off the rails. Mea effing culpa. But the sex had you holding the pages in one hand. C’mon, admit it… the problem was my general incompetence. Don’t blame the sex.

What’s my point, other than this self-aggrandizing claptrap? Okay, here’s a few points about how I think sex scenes ought to be written. Feel free to tell me I ought to go…well, blow myself.

1) Don’t unintentionally let diction drift. Use whatever terminology the POV character would use. Don’t shift from “his flaccid penis” to “his throbbing manhood” just because we’ve, umm, finally got wet. Unless you’re making a point.

2) Don’t forget the basics. Tension, pacing, avoidance of cliché, and all the rest, still play their roles (unless you’ve earned the cliché, but that applies to all writing. And, incidentally, fuck you very much if you’ve had the brilliance to earn it. An earned cliché is mastery and usually immortality.) In general, don’t suddenly go all romance-novel unless you’re writing, erm, a romance novel.

3) Stay in close POV. This is intimate stuff. Don’t go all cinematic. This is writing, not film, and we shouldn’t necessarily see the whole galaxy. The stain on the pillowcase or the broken shoelace beside the bed is more evocative than the globular cluster in Omega Centauri. Sticky, Icky. Live with it. We’re all kinda leaky. “Did you feel the earth move?” “I dunno. Did you feel the sheets stick to your thighs?”

4) Stay in close POV…except when you shouldn’t. The middle of a sex scene is the most wonderful moment to pull back into either a bird’s-eye view or a cosmic view or an internal monologue (no matter how that conflicts with my previous point.) It’s a perfect time to surprise the reader, or hold the moment in suspense, or introduce a new thread, while the reader wonders what the hell you’re doing when the important action is somewhere, umm, south of what you’re yammering on about. It’s a glorious opportunity.

5) Embrace awkwardness. Except for perhaps the fiftieth fuck between exclusive partners, sex, no matter how exciting, is awkward. (Too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too smelly, too dry, too purple, too Manichean, too whatever.) And even after #50, invariably a bit messy. And the earth doesn’t move, except by coincidence, incompetence, or divine intervention, any of which need to be detailed in the prose. A stand-up comic (by some accounts Gary Shandling, by others Richard Lewis) asserted that a realistic sex manual would be entitled Ouch, You’re On My Hair! Embrace awkwardness—any reader is bound to identify. Women usually understand this point instantly, though they aren’t always willing to write it honestly. Men usually understand this point instantly…and are almost never willing to write it at all, honestly or otherwise. In some matters, guys are just, well…pussies.

6) “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Or so Robert Frost asserted. If you aren’t—ahem, (send the kiddies into the next room for a minute)—hard or wet or both (as befits you), or at least amused or shocked (as befits your story) when you’ve written a sex scene and re-read it….well, question it. And consider the next point.

7) "The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” Arthur Miller, one of history’s finest playwrights, mentioned that in an interview. All I can do is doff my hat, with the exception of expanding the masculine to include the feminine. I think this is the most important point in this somewhat silly post. If the writer isn’t in such an intimate, exposed place in working with the scene that it touches some edges, then the scene probably needs to be cut.

One odd detail I've gleaned from having many folks (roughly 60:40 female:male) read my stuff over the course of 5 1/2 novels is that graphic sex really doesn't bother most women. They're sturdy. It's inauthentic sex that tends to make them want to strangle the writer.

On the other hand, portrayal of authentic, messy, unidealized sex makes many of the boys intensely uncomfortable.

It's one of those role-reversal things, and maybe one of you readers can explain it. But my uneducated theory is, if we ain't uncomfortable, we ain't really writing. And if it ain't a little uncomfortable and awkward, heck, it ain't sex, either.

But that might just be my throbbing manhood speaking. Or perhaps some nearby orifice.

4 comments:

emmadarwin said...

I'd agree that it's inauthentic sex that annoys me, as a female reader, in sex scenes, from the way he removes his own jeans in one swift movement (just you try) to the way that after it's over, everything reverts, emotionally, physically, mentally, to being as if it never happened. The chief thing to remember is that writing sex is exactly the same as writing anything else, and demands the same concentration on character development, narrative arc and the use of language, as any other scene. It's just that there's more scope for getting it wrong.

But I'd disagree that it has to be uncomfortable to write, though it's usually difficult, because writing sex well is difficult. Nor, indeed, does the sex HAVE to be messy and awkward, for fear of otherwise straying into Harlequin Mills and Boon territory. Of course there's messy, awkward sex, but if it wasn't wonderful sometimes, none of us would do it, let alone write about it, would we? The wonderful times can be equally authentic, but are actually much harder (yes, I know) to write well, I think. But I'm sorry for anyone who thinks wonderful sex in fiction is by definition unrealistic, and wish them better luck in the future...

David Isaak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Isaak said...

PS. Ala Miller, any good scene of any sort is uncomfortable for me to write.

But, then, I'm probably more neurotic than most writers. (And that's saying a lot.)

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