The Challenge of Being Joan Wilder

I read a quote somewhere recently about how if what you’re writing doesn’t scare you–that is, if you aren’t worried about being able to pull it off–then you aren’t challenging yourself or writing to your full potential. I totally agree with that assessment. As long-time readers of my posts know, I have a generalized fear of making all my characters introverted over-thinking automatons who can rationalize themselves out of any emotion and any poor decision, but I don’t think that’s really what the quote is talking about.

What has been giving me performance anxiety (swallow now, you’ll laugh in a minute when the sentence catches up to my pun) for probably the last two weeks is a sex scene. Specifically the scene I was going back and forth about whether to include in the novella-cum-short-novel at all, that I decided to go ahead and write and then decide later where I wanted the story to end or if the sex ought to be included even if the story ends after the point where they have sex. Today I managed to bite the, er, bullet and slap something into my story document that, I hope, will be the heart of a good sex scene.

What inspired me, oddly, was a sexy interlude I’d written in the long novel I’m also trying to finish up, which had been pretty terrible the first time I wrote it but had gone through at least one full re-write and a revision and is now pretty damned good, at least to my tastes. Reading through that scene while trying to decide which story to pick up today kind of gave me that “look, you did it once, and you KNOW how awkward that scene was the first time, so it’s not a big deal if you write a bad one to begin with, it can be fixed, but you can’t fix something that isn’t there, so just do it and see how it goes” pep talk.

So I wrote it out. I haven’t gone back and read it since I finished drafting it this morning, and I am kind of terrified to. Will it be terrible?  Will it be unusable? Will it justify the paralysis that gripped me for two weeks because I didn’t know how to approach this scene? Will I have to delete it all and start over, and face the same road block for two more weeks? This is the boggart hanging out in my writing desk today.

What I actually find amusing in this scenario (although, sadly, not amusing enough to dispel the boggart) is that, despite what it might sound like, writing sex scenes isn’t all that fun. I mean, imagining them is awesome! Always a good time. LOL. But writing them is actually pretty tricky. There’s several reasons for that.

First is the basic fact that you can’t just write a list of what got touched and pushed and slotted where. That isn’t a sexy sex scene; that’s a how-to manual. What makes sex scenes fun to read is when you as a reader can empathize with what the characters are feeling, both physically and emotionally–their excitement, their desire, their pleasure, their sense of connection. Their reactions to the physical actions are much more important than actions themselves.

Second is the danger of having all your sex scenes feel the same. In romance, most sex takes place between a couple who are new at being lovers, and in historical (which is what I am focused on writing now and for the forseeable ever) the heroine is often a virgin. Thus there are certain, shall we say, boundaries that aren’t likely to be crossed the first time, and in fact most of the time the sex will be the same–missionary with the standard elements of foreplay. Thus the staging of it becomes important, along with, again, mood between the characters and their reactions to what they do.

Third is making sure that the length of the scene and the explicitness of it are consonant with the overall story. If you’re writing a 20,000 word story, you don’t want a 5,000 word sex scene. That’s waaaaaay too much of the overall word count. If the story on the whole has been sweet, a short and vague scene is probably better suited than a really hard-core scene with descriptions of creamy heat and pounding cocks, while if you’ve spent a good deal of the build-up being explicit, you don’t want to blue-ball the reader with something more PG13 than R (or more R than NC17, as the case may be).

In my experience, the best way to write sex scenes is to have a base scene that was written “in the moment” as I’m really imagining the way the scene unfolds between those characters that is then edited and revised away from a description of what happened into a suggestion of what happened and the story of why it mattered. My first drafts of sex scenes are almost invariably too A-B-C-D lists of events. I have to understand what happened to then start cherry-picking the acts to focus on and relate back to the characters’ experience of what happened. My scenes are always longer than I want them to be and not actually all that sexy the first time I read it back, because when I am no longer in the moment but just looking at the words, I understand that all my words did was convey what the characters did, which isn’t enough. If that was all romance readers wanted, they would just watch video porn and save themselves the hours of reading to get to that point.

On the flip side, though, is that sex scenes I write with an editorial focus on feelings and whatnot tend to have no heat to them. They are boring to read, because there is none of the physical rawness that comes with that kind of video-style exposition of the what-hit-what. It is a waste of my time to try and write a sex scene in the style of a finished scene on the first go.

Maybe some day I will have written enough of the damned things to have a better sense of how to construct them with both emotion and heat, but for now I have to just settle for taking the long way about it and editing them into submission.

…And now I have a picture of my inner editrix clicking into the room with a crop and thigh-high boots to get those naughty, recalcitrant scenes into shape. Oh, dear.



Filed under Reflections on Romance, Writing

2 responses to “The Challenge of Being Joan Wilder

  1. Answer disclaimer: I do not write romance, and sex scenes are a personal quirk of mine.

    I don’t care for writing sex scenes anymore only because in my earlier writings I was swamped with them to the point of drowning. There were days when I would know one was coming and would seriously write anything I could to avoid going there. Including sudden earthquakes. (Seriously. The earthquake bit was funny.) Plus, being that I write urban fantasy, well… there’s not much of a real reason to throw bow-chica-wow-wow in there at every turn, IMO. I have a whole shelf of UF behind me that started out the series FAN-TASTICLY, and degenerated into sad, bad porn and I’m just not going there.

    Me a prude? *snort* No, by no stretch. Just saturated by personal experience.

    Now, it’s A-B-C list of events while tossing in the dialog snippets (if any) and then get in their heads during rewrites and make it pretty; show the emotions, the feeling behind it, or it’s worthless text on the page . Sometimes those scenes BELONG and how dare I deprive the reader–and my characters–of that special moment for which they’ve been waiting just because I went through a personal bout of GODSHELPMENOMORE. Though, if there’s more than two scenes in the whole book, I start cringing and looking for ways to NOT include one or more–closed door scenes, anything but actually going there.

    Old habits, old peeves. I must break them.

    • I think your take on it is about in line with mine (and your process as you describe it, lol).

      In a straightforward romance (versus erotic romance, which is a whole different bag), I can’t think of a reason to have more than about 3 explicit sex scenes. I would think for UF 2 explicit scenes is a good limit. There certainly ARE stories and characters where not to have that scene would be diminishment–it would feel like not showing one of the major steps on their journey–but I agree that some series devolve into bad porn. I would rather leave sex out than write bad sex scenes.

      The verdict on this scene, BTW, was that I couldn’t make it work and decided to just close the door. It was an issue of the reality of the situation as I saw it colliding with the expectations of romance/needs of the ending scene of a story. I just couldn’t see the characters having some mind-blowing encounter their first time, but without any more story to have them get there, I couldn’t end the book with a “well, it gets better…” moment! So I ended it on the happy anticipation and the comforting thought that even if it’s not great they now have a lifetime to make it great. So in the end all my stress about this particular scene was wasted. But I’m still glad I gave it a go–trying out both paths makes me more confident in the one I chose than if I didn’t really know how the other version would have gone. So you might keep that in mind as a strategy, too, that just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it has to stay, if it just doesn’t work despite your best efforts….

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