25 July 2015

No Sex Please – We’re Crime Writers!

I write short.  This stems from my comedy writing roots, where each word must be carefully chosen for impact.  So my publishers don’t delete a lot of scenes from my books.  In fact, they usually tell me where to add more words.
With one exception.

There seems to be a convention that crime books shouldn’t contain sex.  Oh, they can refer to sex. Sex can be a powerful motivator for all those violent scenes we are allowed to describe in painstaking detail. (Irony alert here.)

So you can refer to sex. But Lord help you if you – ahem – ‘Show-not-Tell.’

Okay, so I show a bit.  But just a little bit.  I don’t write X-rated, honest.  In fact, I write with the sort of silliness that might be associated with old Benny Hill skits.  So we’re not talking Fifty Shades of Naughty here. (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Boredom.  But I digress…)

Still, my naughty bits get censored. No sex please, we’re crime writers!

It’s a crime <sic>.  Heck, it’s enough to make a poor gal swap genres. Have you read any steamy romance books lately?  Those novels can be practically pornographic.

When did romance books become more adult than crime books?

I explained to one of my publishers why a certain sexy blackmail scene was essential to the story. It provided motivation that was completely necessary.  So here was their admittedly canny solution:
Leave the dialogue in, but take out the other senses – the sounds, the visuals, the - let’s leave it there.

Yes, it still works.  You get what’s going on by what is being said.

Does it lose impact?  Well, yes.  I work hard to include all the senses in my writing.

But does it work for the plot?  Yes, it does.  It might even be funnier without the senses.

You be the judge.

From THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, winner of the 2014 Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards:

“Now Carmine, move up front here and pay close attention to this video,” I said. “You might know the people.”

Everyone came closer. You could almost hear each individual breath. Except then I turned up the volume and you could only hear the heavy breathing and moans coming from the laptop.

“Oh Carmy! Do it – do it – ahhhhh”

“I’m doin’ it, babe – I’m doin’ it –“

“Faster, Carmy! Faster – don’t stop”

All eyes were glued to the screen.

“Oh, gross,” said Lou.

“Holy shit!” yelled Carmine. “How did you get that?”

“Carm, that ain’t your wife. Tracy’s not a blond.” Bertoni was confused.

“How the heck is she doing that?” Pete stared at the video with far too much interest.

Has your publisher ever dialed back a particularly sexy scene? Give us the dirt <sic> in the comments below.

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  1. I'm a believer that if sex (or anything else) is essential to the plot or characterization, then by all means it should be included. If it's gratuitous, then it shouldn't. Why do some who pore over every grisly detail of a brutal murder turn squeamish about sex?

  2. Leigh, that is exactly the thing that baffles me. In North America we seem to celebrate violence in our books and movies, and carefully restrict sex. Europe appears to do the opposite.

  3. You are simply wonderful! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  4. I agree with you, Melodie. I have an unpublished novel with sex scenes, and every one of them that moves the plot forward. But a member of my writing group (who I adore, in case she reads this) told me that she skipped reading at least some of those scenes because surely sex couldn't move the plot forward and thus it was a waste of her time. (My comments notwithstanding.) I wonder if some crime readers think this way and skip over sex scenes and then find themselves confused or ... unsatisfied at the book's ending because they don't know what they missed.

  5. Thelma, you have no idea how I needed that, right now. Bless you.

  6. Barb, I think you've hit the nail on the head. So often, what happens in those scenes provides motivation for what comes next. I think what baffles me is the way crime writers are quick to show graphic sexual violence in their books. That seems to be accepted. I almost wonder if it goes back to the ole "sex is bad" belief; show it as being bad and that is okay.

  7. A friend of mine compliAined that she had to read the sex scene in my first. novel twice to see if anything actually happened. In my new book, Greenfellas, available now at fine bookstores- sorry. Where was I? Oh yes, in that book, there are several sex scenes but they tend to end just as things are beginning or begin just as things are, uh, finishing. And they tend to be less about plot than about character.

  8. I am definitely going to look up that book, Rob! grin.
    But seriously, character provides motivation. Relationships are key. Works for me.

  9. Not to mention, you can have clues in a sex scene. Something someone thinks about. A flash of memory. Or something someone says. You have to pay attention.

  10. In my YA mystery series I don't even go there, but my contemporary series for sure has a bit of sex. Not romance novel level sex, I never refer to anyone's 'member' but the reality of sex in a normal life ... I don't think it should be verboten in adult fiction.

  11. I think the question is if it's filler. Everything should advance the plot. A sex scene can advance the plot just as much as a shoot-out can. If a scene could be completely deleted without affecting the plot at all, then it should come out, whether it's a sex scene or any other kind of scene. If a scene is only used to expand on character, I would find another place to do that, somewhere the plot is being advanced.

  12. Melodie, welcome to the Saturday team! I'm not exactly an old-timer here, since I started just two weeks ago, but I figure that's enough to earn me a spot on the welcoming committee.

    When writing about either sex or violence, I think it usually works best to keep the focus on what the characters are thinking and feeling, not on body parts or on blood and gore.

  13. Hi B.K.! I've actually been on here over a year, but I cut back from once every two weeks to once a month starting this month. Usually I write comedy posts - this is a bit of a departure. (Okay, only partially. I can never be completely serious :)

  14. Barb, I'm absolutely with you. I teach Crafting a Novel at college, and this is lesson 2.

  15. Yup. My publisher made me take out all sex scenes and any language stronger than "damn". At first I said WTF? But my editor explained that my target demographic is older educated women, and they want clever, not dirty. This was how they were "branding" my comic mysteries.

    And I have to admit it works. In fact one reviewer excerpted a whole romantic scene, which he loved because it was like a 1950s Doris Day movie seduction...except it was the woman making the moves.

  16. Anne, that is a telling story. The publisher knows the market best. For instance, I hate 'pulling back' on my humour, but sometimes I'm instructed to by my publisher, in order to better fit the aggregate market. Ditto, I guess, with naughty scenes.

  17. To anyone who thinks that sex DOESN'T move the plot along in crime stories - haven't they ever read or seen "The Postman Always Rings Twice"? Sex moves every moment of that plot along. The same with "Body Heat", "Mildred Pierce", "Double Indemnity", and almost every noir ever written/filmed. Sex and greed: two of the mainstays of why people kill.

  18. Great examples, Eve! I think Body Heat is the most recent of those examples, and you nailed it. Noir is almost always about sex. Great discussion.


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