To write IT or not to write IT . . .
I’ve seen dozens of writers blog about this question.
What question, you ask?
How much to write when you write about sex, of course.
Should we be explicit, they say, including every sweaty, gasping moment?
Or should we be subtle, giving just the intimation of a touch, anything further a mere hint with a specially chosen word?
Looking back on those two questions, there’s obviously no doubt which I prefer. I am a subtle creature (in this instance), not given to verbose descriptions of the sex act. Besides, I’m not writing bonk-busters. I’m writing either a rough first draft historical fiction for the blog or in-depth fantasy sagas potentially for print.
I grew up with countless replays of movies of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s on TV and there was a code of depiction. Goodness, even Lucy and Desi weren’t allowed to show a double bed on I Love Lucy. It was twin beds all the way. So love was pure and usually focussed on a long kiss. If we needed to believe it was going to lead to the next step, the camera invariably panned to waves crashing on a beach or clouds flying across the sky. Cliched? You betcha. But stirring the imagination? Of course. Leading to one thought after another so that one could take the whole thing as far as one wanted.
I remember one scene which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. It comes from The King and I: a movie that related stories about respect and affection and indeed lifelong love. The scene I mention is one that set my imagination ablaze in the most romantic way and you can see it on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdyqmN5cnRQ
Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr have been dancing, she teaching him to polka but halfway through he claims he wants to dance as westerners do. He moves with animal grace close in by her, sliding a masterful hand round her silk-clad waist. Perhaps it is the dark storminess of those Brynner eyes, the sliiiiiide of his hand as it moves around her, her reaction of ‘don’t, yet do’, her chest heaving away in its low-cut Victorian gown. Either way, it is a loaded scene. The stillness of the couple, the initial removal of her hands to lie behind her back, speaks much for the ‘less is more’ approach.
Which of course I am desperate to make my own. (I hope)
And so I have finally written two scenes and sweated much. One was for A Thousand Glass Flowers and rests in the hands of an editor in the UK. The other is for The Sheriff’s Collector and will be delivered to the readers of mesmered as a Christmas present next week.
I hope you all approve.
PS: You have no idea how difficult it is to tag a post like this so that it doesn’t invite the worst spam and the strangest visitors. Pray that Akismet is working!
After a certain point, depictions of sex turn into voyeurism, and become more embarrassing (or more arousing) than entertaining. I think either one is distracting enough to snap the reader out of the writer’s spell, a cardinal sin in any kind of suspension of disbelief.
Anyway, I’m all for sex in most things, but tension is still way sexier than sex.
It IS voyeurism, Pat, you’re quite right. And I believe that once the reader’s mood is changed so that they sit OUTSIDE the actual novel, then you may have lost from the narrative for good.
I looooove romantic tension, I am not a fan of explicit revelation, as you can tell.
As for ‘bonk-buster’, the term originated I think, in respect of Jilly Cooper’s books. She writes fabulous bonk-busters and in fact coined the term ‘bonkery’ for a folly in which one of her protagonists (the great conductor Ranaldini) used to take women and ‘ravish’ them. But Jilly did it so tongue-in-cheek that one could do little but laugh. She’s one of my favourite women’s fict authors. Not chick lit, definitely women’s fict and worth reading any one of them over the seasonal break. WONDERFUL holiday read!
Agreed, fully 🙂 I’ve written “those” scenes–but they’re mostly lead-in (which I find more interesting anyway) and nuanced phrasing that hints at what’s going on, but never uses verbiage that explains, illustrates, or exploits. I think there’s more artistic integrity in exploration than exposition in most cases anyway.
And you’re so right about movies from the 40s-60s! I always say my favorite movie sex scene is the ending of It Happened One Night (1934)–the “Walls of Jericho”! You never see anything, but you know exactly what’s happening in those kinds of films–in some ways, it’s more respectful of the audience. We’re not dumb–we know what people do behind closed doors without seeing it 🙂
Foreplay’s the thing, Rowenna! And no, we are not dumb and everyone’s imagination can be as fast or as slow as they want.
I also like the idea of respect for one’s audience or readership. Very good point.
I can’t say much about writing those scenes but I can say a lot about reading them. The best part in a romance, even a sexy romance is always the vibrating tension between the lovers, the perception of their longing and passion, the expectation of the blissed moments to come. The act in itself is usually the release of that tension which little by little subsides.
I find passionate kisses so much more exciting than … well…you know what I mean.
I’ve always thought the best part is the expectation … and I’ll stop here.
As for The Sheriff’s Collector, thanks for your Christmas gift, Prue. I’m sure I’ll love it. But be sure last week’s installment was very much appreciated.
The responses to this blog are wonderful. The way each of you you describes what you feel, what you desire . . . in reading a book.
And you, MG:
‘ . . . the vibrating tension between the lovers, the perception of their longing and passion, the expectation of blissed moments to come.’ It’s perfect, especially the word ‘expectation’. In truth, I wonder if the readers of The Sheriff will be as keen to stay the distance once they know what Ysabel and Guy MAY have done.
I think we’ll stay the distance because we want to see what happens when/if THAT event occurs how if affects the two parties, the relationship (IS there a relationship) and their futures. We already know something must have gone awry in some fashion because of Ysabel’s situation when the story began.
I’m in for the long haul, not just for the story but because you’re a damn good writer.
Regarding the IT writing…I’m uncomfortable writing it for religious reasons and I’m conflicted because I’ve read others writing and that is a dilemma I am working to resolve.
Thanks for the story and the blog…
I have to echo the sentiments expressed thus far. I’ve stumbled on to some really graphic stuff on the internet and it just bugs the heck out of me. It sometimes appears that the sex is the ONLY reason the story was written. And maybe how many different names the authors can give to a particular part of the anatomy…totally cracks me up.
I too love the tension and electricity between characters, prefacing what happens next. When the IT becomes off the charts, I skip to the next part or quit reading altogether. Their choice to write it and mine to skip it. I can’t wait to see how you handle it! Will check out Ms. Cooper’s books, thanks!
I agree, November Bride. Some of the comment on Twitter and other social media lacks a certain . . . class, shall we say? Self-control? Elegance? It’s certainly why I turn away and shake my own head.
As for Jilly Cooper’s books . . . trust me, they are the complete reverse of everything we have just been saying but they are very amusing . . . especially if one realises she is being quite acerbic about the English contemporary and moneyed country classes. Tongue in cheek most definitely.
I almost swallowed my coffee mug when I read the phrase. But I agree entirely. Plus, of course, well placed inuendo beats blatancy any day. From Marius’ Mules II:
Keeping a close watch on her and gripping the knife, he let the stick fall to the platform and used his free hand to pull on his breeches. He looked up in surprise to see the girl laughing.
“I think the water… it must be very cold, yes?”
Heh heh heh.
But Si, you MUST have heard the term! It originated in the UK with someone describing Cooper’s books. Great term, isn’t it? Pity I can’t use it, *bonk* in my books. I had to settle for *tup* . . . more medieval/ fantasy etc etc.
Very nice allusion to the cold too!!! Marius’s Mules II like Marius’s Mules I another hist fict book we all must look out for. For all those who love action-packed Roman fiction. I loved MMI!
lol- on your tagging comment
oh lordy, how i must catch up with your sweet pieces!
twill be a xmas present to self to sit down with cuppa tea and continue reading about the sheriff.
VVB32! How good to catch you here. Have a relaxing read over Christmas. It’s been a good year, hasn’t it?
Excellent post that really brings it down to the main point for me: if you think of yourself as a creative artist — which you obviously and reasonably do — rather than an author of the romantic equivalent of penny dreadfuls, and you chose to write explicit material in (let’s admit it) defiance of social and artistic canons for literature (as opposed to smut): what does it do for the work itself? Does it advance the plot? Does it add something to the characterization? Those are the issues involved for me.
I don’t think there’s only one answer to this question, frankly, and different writers are better at different pieces of the puzzle. I have written many times on my blog that I love sexually explicit fanfic — but I don’t love all of it. The author has to get it right (whatever that means, and that’s a complex problem) for me as a reader. Some authors are clearly much better at writing sexual tension — and I can be just as satisfied with that as with explicit sex, if it’s done well, and I’d rather read romance and tension than badly written explicit stuff. I say go with your strengths.
But that said I am really looking forward to the next post of Sheriff’s Collector.
And Servetus, I look forward to your review of it. Over this year I have thoroughly enjoyed your erudite blog … the kind of well-thought out commentary illustrated by your thoughts above. Thank you for points that I feel may apply to what I have written.
I’m fairly confident there’s nothing gratuitous in it … though we shall see what others think I’m sure.
I find quite difficult to write about sex, well… Not sex itself as in science but sex scenes. I rather stay at “safe place” and let the readers imagination do the rest (in their own way). One of the greatest thing in reading something in a foreign language (and only applied to this case) is that you don’t get “the whole picture” as well as if it were your native language so… =) But that doesn’t mean I can’t deal with it if plot-needed.
@goodlaura: this is a super point. I don’t really find sex writing in any of the foreign languages I can read all that enticing, even in the ones I am fluent speaker of. I’d been pondering why that should be the case for years and I am glad you brought it up. Any chance you can say more about “not getting the whole picture” in a foreign language versus your own?
The thing is that language is so rich and sometimes it can be so explicit about that matter that when you speak fluently a language there are some things that are always “lost” in translation, Inevitably. So all you get is a “blurry picture” of what it may be happening.
When you are reading such things in your own language that’s not possible. You know exacty how it goes, you have that picture in your mind and you follow it from the beginning to the end. And that happens because you directly transform words to images and you don’t have to use a nanosecond to think about the meaning of certain word in a certain context. It’s automatic.
So in this nanosecond, this blink or in the lack of vocabulary about the matter in question , or the complexity of the sentence is where you find the difference between reading in english and spanish as it’s my particular case.
In the other hand, and more applied to fanfics, there are things I don’t reallly need to know about my favourite characters but this is just a matter of taste, I’m afraid, the same way I’m not interested about polka dancing or the NBA all stars, for example.
@Servetus and @GoodLaura,
Such an interesting discussions. The arrogance of the English language presumes that everyone understands what is written and that it requires little if any translation. I can see now how difficult it might be for a reader with English as a second language to make the necessary adjustments and feel the same emotion that an English reader might be experiencing. It surely dilutes as it passes through the translation-blender.
On the lighter side, we have this image of the Spanish being a passionate race and I should love to see my own words in Spanish WITH the same meanings!!
I’ve been wondering if there’s an intuitive level of language that one only reaches with one’s mother tongue or after decades and decades. I’ve been speaking German nearly every day since 1995, in some years to the point of thinking and dreaming in German, for many years I had German boyfriends, etc., abandoned English. And there are some German endearments that I now “get”. But the language of sex has always remained foreign to me; I’d rather be silent about it in German; and the same is true when I read German novels that have explicit scenes in them.
As an English-only speaker (to my shame), I am guessing it is only after many years of speaking a particular language that it becomes intuitive and operating in the sub-conscious. I’ve heard other people who are remarkably fluent in a language and perhaps live in that culture say that they now think and dream in that language. A not unknown phenomenon.
My dreams are highly visual, tactile, filled with audio . . . marvellous inspiration occasionally . . . but always in English with no sub-titles!
As long as we’re talking about this (and don’t hesitate to tell me to shut up if you find this tedious), I also want to raise the question of whether languages have moods that are unique to them. I don’t mean on the surface level: people are always telling me that German “sounds harsh” and not romantic at all. I admit that as the descendant of German speakers I never saw it that way, but it seems to me once you get immersed in a language that effect goes away. But you raise the issue of Spanish — that was my undergrad degree field, and I studied in México for a year. I had a boyfriend, though it was all very innocent. But I “got” Spanish endearments much more quickly and now wonder what would have happened had that relationship persisted. I.e., is there a way in which Spanish is passionate that is different from passion in German, and which would have had a greater effect on me? Questions upon questions.
I probably should engage in some more research 🙂
From the POV of an english-only speaker? Hearing French, Italian and Spanish create enormous emotion. Whether this is from a lifetime of hearing others’ comments on the nature of the French people, Italian people etc is possible.
All I know is that if I hear French, Italian, Spanish, then I can be transported in the most delicious way. Having said that, an English actor with a deep and well-modulated voice can do the same thing: think James Mason and Stewart Granger from way back, then Kenneth Branagh and Richard Armitage most recently and in between, Sir Ian McK and a dozen other Shakespearean-trained voices. Sublime!
I speak Spanish and English and I’m able to get some Italian. Too shy to speak it… That’s why I understand what Servetus said about not finding German harsh. I think this mood of languages is a perception that one has when it doesn’t have to live absolutely inmerse in it. I mean, Spanish for me is just spanish and I don’t have that sense of passion when hearing it. But I do get that feeling when I listen to someone in French or English. In fact, I have a thing about a certain Brit-english accent (even before I discovered Richard Armitage) that makes me turn my head whenever I hear it.
I love the way Italians seems to sing while they speak, and that’s another of my perceptions.
Another thing is what stereotypes has made of us:
Spanish, passionate, magnificent dancers, a bit unfriendly to work (so to speak LOL) and all… Well, FYI I have two left feet, I can put one foot in front of the other without stumbling LOL and I live in the one of most representative city of the spanish folklore.
Well, I’m not sure if I made myself clear but I hope I do.
Anyway I found great people around the world who showed me stereotypes are just that.
P.S. I found there’s something magical to in listening to someone speaking in a language you don’t understand at all. Mind plays its tricks and it can be cursing you and still you believe it beautiful LOL
@servetus, I would whole heartedly endorse a comparative study field trip for you! 🙂