A Mountain of Ash in Your Kitchen Sink.
A friend and fellow author contacted me a couple of months ago and asked me to help him write his first sex scene. While I was immensely flattered that he liked mine well enough to ask me for help, I couldn’t help laughing as I remembered the first time I tried to write one of my own. I think my face was red for a week.
I was a researcher/non-fiction writer for many years before tackling my dream of writing fiction, and when I wrote my first novel, I had no concept of what was involved. I wrote the story, proofed it, and sent it off to an editor, fully expecting to get a rapid and positive response. And before you ask, no I am not a blonde. (No offense to all you blondes out there. I was referring to the other kind of blonde.)
The editor, who was really a saint in disguise, responded in about three weeks, which at the time I thought was awfully long to wait. His reply shocked, horrified, and insulted me. He said he loved the storyline. That’s it. The storyline was the only thing he liked. My characters were not three-dimensional, my dialogue was unnatural, my scenes were too long and wordy, and my action scenes needed short, punchy sentences, not long, convoluted ones.
Fortunately, when I calmed down enough to think rationally, I realized he wouldn’t have taken the time to detail what was wrong with the story if he hadn’t thought it had potential. In fact, he must have really liked the storyline to respond the way he did.
So I did what any researcher/non-fiction writer worth their salt would do: I studied craft books and took a lot of on-line writing classes. Based on what I learned, and on what the editor said in his letter, I edited, revised, joined some critique groups, then edited and revised again, When I thought it was ready—and even I could tell how much better it was much than the first time—I sent it out to another editor as I was too embarrassed to send it back to the first one. This one got back to me in about three months and said she liked my writing. She actually liked my writing—God, I felt just like Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars.
I didn’t come down from the ceiling for days. But the rest of the letter was a problem. She wanted to buy the story, but—Man, don’t you just hate those “buts?”—in order for her to take it, I had to put sex in it. Sex? I wrote back and asked why, since it wasn’t a romance, did it need sex? Her response was that in this economy, novels weren’t selling without sex. Plain and simple. I didn’t have to write romances, but if my novel didn’t have strong romantic elements, no editor or agent would touch it. I was certain she was nuts, so I sent the novel out a few dozen more times. Turns out she wasn’t nuts at all. No one wanted it without sex.
Then I got the bad news—it wasn’t sex scenes they wanted but sexual tension. As long as it had plenty of sexual tension, I could “close the bedroom door.” In other words, my sex scenes could be implied. But, hey, if I had to write sex, I would damn well write sex! I didn’t think it would be all that hard. After all, you’re supposed to be able to write about what you know. So if I had had sex, I should be able to write sex. Right? (Okay, okay, maybe I am a blonde.)
When I wrote my first sex scene, it was was so bad I burned it in my kitchen sink. I’m not kidding. I made it a sacrificial ritual to the Goddess of Sex-Scene Writing—she’s very shy and obscure, but I’m certain she exists. Not that she listened to my prayers or accepted my sacrifices.
In retrospect, the scene probably wasn’t as bad as I thought—no, I take that back, it was as bad as I thought. But at least I hadn’t stooped to any “steel rods in velvet sheaths” or other such euphemisms. However, since I didn’t think that being embarrassed rather than aroused when reading a sex scene, even if it is your own, was an encouraging sign, I went back to the craft books, critique groups, and research, including reading a lot of sex scenes written by other authors. Oh, and did I mention that my significant other was out of town for over a month at this time? I don’t think he ever figured out why I practically tore his clothes off the minute he walked in the door. (Needless to say, the other authors knew how to write ones that hadn’t embarrassed me.)
By the time I finally learned how to write a decent sex scene another three years had passed, and my novel Blood Fest: Chasing Destiny wasn’t published until the spring of 2011. And since it’s received some very favorable reviews, I figure I must have done okay with them. No one has actually praised the sex scenes, but at least they haven’t said they suck.
The moral of my story is that anyone can write sex scenes. All you need is lots of research, years of practice, enough patience to revise until your eyes are crossed, and a mountain of ash in your kitchen sink.
© 2015 by Pepper O’Neal