03 July 2017

Fade to Black...

by Steve Liskow

I'm currently in the sixth draft of my latest Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Even though I know him and his companion Megan Traine pretty well by now (Starting in 2004, I gathered over 100 rejections for their first book) and the plot points are falling into line almost as if I knew what I was doing, one scene is reminding me of something I learned a long time ago.

Sex scenes are really hard to write well.

Every book sets its own standards for how explicit or how subtle, and sometimes you figure it out by doing it wrong. If it's too graphic, it verges on porn, and if it's too discreet, it feels prudish or even silly. Obviously, noir or hard-boiled stories allow more process than a cozy or traditional, but even then, you have a little...er, wiggle room.

Remember the Frank Zappa song "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" The punch line is "I think it's your mind." Well, sex scenes really aren't about the choreography of who does what to whom and how much how often as much as they're about the emotions your characters experience.

If you're just putting tab A into slot B and folding appendage C over corner D, you're writing porn. Janet Evanovich discussed Stephanie Plum's frolics with a fair amount of detail, but also with large doses of humor. If you add humor, which chick lit romance writers--Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Anne Krentz, and Rachel Gibson, to name a few--do, it's much better. I admit, I read chick lit for the terrific dialogue. Yeah, sounds like when we were in college and claimed we read Playboy for the interviews, doesn't it?

Dennis Lehane's novels featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro never describe their activities in much detail, but have any readers ever doubted for a second that they had a very hot sex life? Don Winslow, on the other hand, has a scene in California Fire and Life (one of my favorite crime novels) with Jack Wade and Letty Del Rio that tells you everything you never wanted to know...and it's perfect. These two have blamed themselves for ruining their relationship and splitting up years before, and now they discover how miserable they've been ever since. The scene is in Jack's head, and, graphic as it gets, it's so vulnerable it hurts to read it.

It's all about context, and sometimes you aren't the best judge. My first few books had some fairly explicit scenes, but I've moved away from that...until this one. In the WIP, Chris and Meg have their first really serious fight over a case and are trying to handle a situation they both botched in their previous marriages. Eventually, there's a hot make-up/apology sex scene. That scene didn't appear in my first draft, but my revising showed me it had to be there. In alternate drafts, it has become more and more graphic, and I've tried it from both Meg's and Chris's POV. I've even put it in and taken it out several times. I've tried it as a flashback, too, and it still doesn't satisfy me.

One more revision and it will go to beta readers. I'm already looking forward to their opinions and may even include three separate drafts of that scene: Meg's, Chris's, and none.

Who ever knew that sex could be so hard?

14 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

I think sometimes less is more when it comes to certain scenes, Steve, whether sex scenes or other things. Sometimes it's good to leave things to the reader's imagination. While other times it's better to spell them out. It's a balancing act that we try to get right as often as we can.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Sex. It creates us. It intrigues us throughout our lives. Some have potent sex drives. Some don't. Funny you should write a blog about this as the novel I'm writing - set in 1900 New Orleans - took a turn toward the erotic. It wasn't part of the plan, wasn't in the outline or plot. The characters led the book there. I was running along beside them recording their actions, heading to the planned conclusion of the book. It will end as planned only a sexy scene turned sexier. Graphic in detail? The entire book is graphic in detail so is the sex. Sex. It's what crearted us. It intrigues us and is a driving force in the characters in this book. I'm not about to fade to black with it.

If it intrigues the writer, it may intrugue the reader. I'll talk to my charaters about it. We'll see how detailed it turns out.

Good blog.

Fran Rizer said...

Interesting and thought-provoking column, Steve. When Dixon Hill reviewed a Callie Parrish, he suggested that she have a sex life. In the one coming out in September, she's in a relationship. Her first sex scene in bed in one line: "A nice day turned into a wonderful night." There's more sex in my un-Callie books, but I don't go into a lot of detail because if I want to read porn, I'll read porn. Otherwise, the detailed descriptions can easily become hokey though a few were necessary in KUDZU RIVER. BTW, I used to read my husband's Playboys not for the articles, but for the back-then GREAT short fiction including stories by my friend George Singleton. While we're on the subject, I bought another similar type mag because a friend was excited that they bought his short story and were publishing it. When it came out, he was horrified that his story was edited into a letter in their Forum section. You guys didn't think all those letters were true events, did you?

janice law said...

I think all action scenes, sex included, are very hard to get right.

Art Taylor said...

Hey, Steve -- Great post here, and I want to track down that Winslow book/passage now!
As for me.... I generally avoid writing these, for the very reasons you mention. Good luck with bringing your scene together well!

Steve Liskow said...

Janice, I agree about action scenes, and was considering doing a column on them, too. Lots of fight scenes are so badly written they pull me out of the story. I've lost track of how often someone punches a character who is across the room or kicked someone while he's falling backwards.

O'Neil, your experience is what happened in this case. My earlier books were a lot sexier, but by the time I decided to self-pub the Guthrie books, I'd toned down most of the sex. Then as I was revising this MS, the characters showed me I wasn't being true to them. We're still working on it.

And Art, I think Winslow may be one of the best sexy/violent writers around with the passing of James Crumley several years ago. I've never really tried to emulate either of them, but Winslow definitely opened my eyes to the potential for present tense, which I use much more often than when I started.

Fran, at one time I think I knew someone who actually wrote a lot of the Penthouse Forum posts, the fake letters. I don't remember who now, but I think he got very little for his efforts besides the exposure, so to speak.

Eve Fisher said...

I write short stories, so I almost never have explicit sex scenes in them; I have a hint here and there, but that's about it. As far as sex scenes I've read - well, I think that Cecelia Holland wrote some of the best ever in her historical novels, especially "Great Maria" and "Until the Sun Falls". They are all explicit, hot, and definitely move the plot forward.
Good luck with the Meg & Chris!

Bill Arnold said...

Am I the only one who giggled a little at " I've even put it in and taken it out several times. I've tried it as a flashback, too, and it still doesn't satisfy me"?
Is this due to your love of puns?

R.T. Lawton said...

Steve, I just started reading these same two characters, Chris and Meg, in your Black Orchid Award winning novella (AHMM July/Aug 2017 issue). You're off to a good start. I'm only three pages into it so far (got interrupted by the wife for a chore), but I'm assuming since it's in AHMM that you were careful with any potential sex scene. If you answer, give me a couple of hours to finish reading so there's no spoiler.

Steve Liskow said...

R. T., re-reading "Stranglehold," the previous BONA winner and a prequel to "Look...Mom" was weird because I wrote it as a transition story after the first novel, which had not sold at that time. In "Stranglehold," Meg and Chris (who had a different name then, too) seem to be living together. I don't know when I had them move in, but I decided against that before self-publishing the first novel (Blood On the Tracks) a few years later.

They still have separate residences because I was afraid of turning them too domestic, but after the next novel I may have them discuss the pros and cons of living together. We'll see. I may leave it up to Meg's cats, Bonnie and Clyde. See what they think...

In any case, I hope "Look What They've Done..." was worth your time. And thanks for the shout-out.

Leigh Lundin said...

Bill Arnold… I can’t believe I missed that! Well caught.

I work with a number of romance writers, so I get a fair amount of ‘exposure’, so to speak, vis-à-vis sex scenes.

I’ve mentioned my favorite is by English author Lindsey Davis in One Virgin Too Many. She writes about three chapters in a row about one sentence each. You have to see it, but she does it beautifully.

Robert Lopresti said...

When a friend of mine read my first novel SUCH A KILLING CRIME, she complained that she had to read the sex scene twice to make sure they had actually done anything. When she read GREENFELLAS she complained that the sex and violence were still too understated.

"YOu want more bodily fluids," I said.

"Exactly."

Leigh Lundin said...

Rob, there's your next scene in a capsule.

Joan Toone-Setzer said...

From a readers POV one of the best at writing sex scenes that verge on but are not quite porn is Stuart Woods, especially with his Stone Barrington series. Maybe it's because he is so promiscuous and over the series has had more affairs than Hugh Hefner, but he seems to be able to put the anticipation and emotions in, as well as the satisfaction afterward, without getting explicitly graphic. I have also been know to read a romance novel or two and find the sugar coated scenes in those books titilating and unsatisfactory, which is why I now stick to Michael Connelly, Pat Cornwall, Tess Geritsen and the like. Crime novels all the way, with good medical and legal novels thrown in.