David Edgerley Gates
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.