10 June 2015

Heavy Breathing

Warning: NSFW

About a third of the way into writing VIPER, my Cold War novella - which is about the antiwar movement in Berlin in the 1970's, a KGB deception, and a love affair, among other things - I realized I had to do a SEX SCENE. I'd boxed myself in, there was no way around it. It couldn't happen off-stage, you had to see these people doing the horizontal mambo. Otherwise, the story wouldn't make any sense.

Now, let's face it, this can be a deeply embarrassing prospect. How many writers do you know who've done it convincingly? With the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, my own feeling is that women are better at erotic material than men. Harold Robbins? Gimme a break. Or maybe Norman Mailer, THE TIME OF HER TIME? You might as well just call a plumber, since it's all about leaky pipes.

Twist Phelan has what amounts almost to a comedy routine, talking about writing sex. She says, you avoid at all costs an overwrought euphemism, 'the scepter of love,' for instance. On the other hand, you should steer clear of clinical description - you don't actually have to use the word 'cock.' If you manhandle, so to speak, a turn of phrase like, 'she took me in her lips,' the astute reader can probably imagine she's not hanging onto a subway strap. Less, at least in this situation, is probably more.

I like the way Deb Coonts deals this particular card, and she deals it from the bottom of the deck. Near the end of LUCKY CATCH, there's a really hot scene. First of all, she sneaks it up on you. You're not ready for it at all. You're going, like whoa! Secondly, she doesn't cheat your expectations. She goes all the way. And last but not least, she defuses it afterwards with a laugh line. Who'd expect you could make sex funny? Then again, why is it always taken so seriously, or in books, anyway? C'mon. We're supposed to be enjoying it.

Craig Johnson tells a story. Somewhere around the third Longmire book, he puts two major characters in bed together. Of course, this has consequences, but the point is that Craig gets them in and out of the sack in maybe three sentences. ("Which shows you how much of a pussy I am," he says.) Down the road, he's at a reading, and he's taking questions, and a woman raises her hand, and says, we need to talk about that sex scene. Craig says okay. She says, it went on forever

Craig gives this a long beat, and then he asks her, well, how many times did you read it?

Which brings us back to VIPER. The novella is 17K words. The sex scene takes up two pages, so I lapped Craig. Then again, those two pages took me something like three or four days to write. I was sweating bullets. It was as though I'd set myself a hurdle. Writers do this, of course. You sometimes trick yourself, and set something up, and then you have to do it. (For example, the dive sequence in "Cover of Darkness." That's basically the whole story, and because you're underwater, there's no dialogue. It's all physical action, it's nothing but description. Try it some time - you'd be surprised how hard it is.) Anyway, by the time I got done, I was completely exhausted. I'd been having sex for four days. But the end result works. It's not a complete embarrassment. How many times did I read it aloud to myself? It seemed to go on forever

Here's the thing, though. The real point of the scene is that these two people are invested in each other. If it doesn't have emotional resonance, it's just plumbing. And that was the tricky part. The grappling, the earthiness, showing skin, all of that is to no purpose, if you're just waving it around in a warm room. The money shot was making their physical hunger count for something. Martina tells herself afterward, I surrendered, this was rescue. And if I haven't convinced you of that, it's a dry hump.

What it comes down to is purpose. Why do you need it in the story? Anybody in their right mind would turn and run. Unless you're into whips and chains. Let's be honest. Doing it is terrific. It's consuming, It lights you on fire. But trying to convey that sensation is like pushing water uphill with a rake. In this case, it was utterly necessary. Do you have to ask, would I do it again? Bring on the whips and chains. I'm putty in your hands.


  1. Some days at the writing desk make one nostalgic for the customs of Jane Austen.

    The happy thought is that most characters spend most of their time in other occupations. With the Bacon novels, I've found it a good idea to get his particular preferences out right away, leaving the rest of the novel for painting - and murder.

  2. Well, you know what they say in AA and Al-Anon - you start talking about sex, and even the non-smokers light up. Writing sex scenes that actually mean something is a perilous business. Hard to pull off. D. H. Lawrence, Mary Wesley, Cecelia Holland, and Mary Renault are all pretty damned good at it. Many others aren't.

    Especially in certain kinds of spy novels (written mostly by men) which are really the equivalent of bodice-rippers for men. Same rabbitlike frequency, intensity, catchwords, etc. I just read one, which shall be nameless, which really should have a cover of the voluptuous Russian spy holding the swooning male American spy in her strong muscular thighs...

  3. "I was completely exhausted. I'd been having sex for four days." HIlarious.

    Really good piece, David.

    When my first novel was published a friend told me she had to read the sex scene three times before she was convinced that anything had happened. Too subtle?

    My next novel, which is supposed to be out Real Soon Now, has four sex scenes. No plumbing, few if any adjectives and adverbs. My scenes tend to begin as things are, um, finishing, or end as they are beginning. Just enough to let you know who is doing what and why it matters. That's my goal, anyway.

  4. Laff! David, I write erotica, as well as fantasy and crime. Our goal with erotica is to make you *feel* the room heat up. If we do a good job, you feel the emotion of it. Sort of like how a horror writer makes you feel fear, we make you feel desire. (If we do it well. If we don't do it well, we may feel like laughing, grin)
    Fiction is about emotion, I've always said. Fiction writers play with the emotions of readers. :)

  5. Enjoyed this post, David! I once heard that the most difficult thing to write is a sex scene, next most difficult is humor, and next is a scene with only dialogue. If you really want to test your talent, I guess you'd try to write a scene where two lovers are telling each other jokes.

    I agree with Rob's comment, on how much/little should be included, and with your observation that less is usually more. Lee Child's Reacher novels seem to do it just right.

  6. One of your best articles even if it went on forever.


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