Respect the Sex! On erotica and writing

Greetings, friends!

Erotica.

Got your attention? Okay.

How about this?

Sex.

Good, good. You’re paying attention.

So let’s talk about erotica as a genre.

First, I’ll get this out on the table. I tend not to read much erotica. And before you think OMG Andi is such a total prude and she’s all weird about sex, let me direct you to a story I wrote and posted on my website called “Gridlock” (NOT SAFE FOR WORK) or perhaps this other story I wrote and posted on my site called “One Athenian Summer” (might not be safe for work). And let’s not forget “Package Deal,” which is published in the anthology Women in Uniform.

In other words, no. I’m not hung up about sex. I am, however, hung up about story.

Respect the sex, my friends.

(Where the hell is Andi going with this? Click n’ see…)

I bring up this topic because I just finished reading a novel in which the 2 protagonists (women) hook up sexually early on in the book. The sex scene(s) in the early part of the novel were definitely of the erotic/erotica variety, and worked fine for the context. But then, after that initial hookup, the rest of the book was basically a litany of sex. A constant f***fest. Oh, I believed these two could totally hook up for a fling/interlude, but then when the real work of a relationship should begin, and the delving into layers of character (especially in a novel of this length) should begin, well, none of that happened. Instead, the other life stuff was constantly interrupted with a barrage of sex. So you’d get 1-2 pages of “oh, and by the way, here’s what’s going on in real life outside the bedroom” and then 5-10 pages of sex. That was about the ratio. What probably would have worked really well as a great steamy short story went on much too long so that by halfway through, I was totally bored with the sex and there wasn’t really an effective story to carry the protagonists into the realm of “I really am interested in these two as people and what makes them tick?”

By halfway through, I was feeling like a voyeur (and not in a sexy way) because it seemed that these two characters really didn’t have lives of their own and their only purpose was to have sex for me, the viewer. In that respect, it was crossing a boundary into pornography, in which there is no story and it’s only about performing sexual acts for the edification of a watcher (and that’s a whole other discussion).

Which is fine, if that’s your thing. But I’m the type of reader who needs a STORY on which to hang sex. I need that story to drive the characters because ultimately, I’m more interested in who these people are and what might bring them together. I don’t want sex to be the driving force behind a novel unless it’s got some seriously strong characters with effective incorporation of backstory and human issues. I believe that sex can be an effective way to build characterization, and it can be a way to construct a plot arc. But it’s difficult, I think, to do it effectively, and not lose your characters in it and, by extension, the plot.

In writing parlance, we call novels and stories like that PWP (Plot? What Plot?). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a PWP novel or story. Nothing wrong with an erotic hookup as the point of your story. But it’s really hard to make the interlude into a viable, working human relationship that goes deeper than the physical, and that extends from short story length to novel length. And, I think, it’s hard to write good sex well. Which is why I don’t write much erotica. Because it’s freaking difficult! ๐Ÿ˜€

So, if I read (or write) erotica, I prefer short-story format. For me, effective erotica involves protagonists I can get a sense of, who seem like people I might know or have seen around. It’s possible to write character complexity into an erotic short story while not losing the –ahem– thrust of your story. I want to be able to visualize these characters, maybe to root for them to lower some boundaries and inhibitions and engage in a physical act that can be either entirely for pleasure or that might have profound emotional and physical ramifications (and thus add another cool arc to your story).

In other words, respect the sex! You know something ain’t right when by halfway through a novel, you’re so freaking tired of the characters having sex that you would prefer to actually go to work with one of them and hang out in a board meeting or something just so you can get a better sense of who they are as people. By three-quarters through the novel, I was desperate just for the characters to go out to eat and talk about something other than sex. Please, I chanted to the book, for the love of God, go shopping! Get your oil changed! Check in with a friend! Sit on the porch and chat with your neighbors!

That’s what I mean about STORY and respecting the sex. It’s possible to write good erotica and incorporate some backstory and characterization that gives readers a sense of who these people are and what drives them into an erotic encounter. For me, I think the lead-up to the encounter can be just as hot as the encounter itself, and the aftermath can also be hot or hopeful or whatever combination of emotions. But that lead-up can really smoke. How the characters interact initially, what the basis of their attraction might be (and yes, it’s perfectly okay in a story to just be horny at a party and hook up), and what the ramifications — if any — might be. I think it’s way hotter for characters you have a sense of to hook up than it is for just random people to “perform” sex for the reader.

And that sort of crosses into “romance” as a genre. I also have romantic short stories on my website. They don’t involve a full-blown sexual encounter, but rather deal more with the initial stages between characters (if you’re interested, try “Dinner Party” and “Floral Designs“). Another of my romance stories does include a sexual encounter, but it’s sort of a fade-to-black. But again, it’s more about the lead-up and the initial interactions between the characters. That one is “The Kindness of Strangers.”

Point being, sex can be romantic and is part of romance. Or sex can be completely erotic, with emphasis placed on the physical act itself and sensation and sweat and in-the-moment wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Sex can be healing, helpful, or harmful, depending on the characters. It can be a meeting of minds as well as bodies, which ups its erotic factor, I think. It can be many things, and when it’s used in plots, it can be a vehicle for both story arc and characterization. But if it’s not used effectively, sex can completely overrun the plot and you’re left, basically, a voyeur watching people go at it who you don’t really know, you don’t really care about, and who make you want to go out and talk to a real person rather than continue reading.

That’s why, when I write erotica or romance that includes physical interaction between characters, I remind myself to Respect the Sex. Because sex is a connection between people, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep, and always complicated. It is what the characters make it, which can decrease or increase hotness factors in the telling of the story. THAT is why characters are so very important in either romance or erotica. THEY will up that heat ante, and the more you can humanize them, the more a reader can root for the hook-up, whether romantic/erotic or both.

And that, my friends, is why I’m hung up on story. ๐Ÿ˜€

Happy Friday!

16 comments

  1. I agree entirely with what you’re saying. I love romance and a good sex scene but when there’s nothing but sex, I feel cheated. Of course I’ve read a lot of books with lesbian characters and when there’s no sex or romance at all I feel cheated then too. I suppose readers are just plain fickle–sometimes I’m amazed that writers keep writing

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    • Hi, KJ — thanks for stopping by. I’m curious. Why do you feel cheated if there’s NO sex or romance? Is that something you EXPECT in a book with lesbian protagonists or characters? Because it seems that’s not an expectation for heterosexual characters. I certainly don’t pick up, say, a thriller by Lee Child (with the iconic character Jack Reacher) and think: “I sure hope Reacher hooks up in this book.” Nor do I pick up a Patricia Cornwell book and think: “I sure hope Lucy (Scarpetta’s lesbian niece) finally gets some sex/romance in this one.” Nor do I feel cheated if a character who identifies as lesbian doesn’t hook up or get romance. After all, LGBT characters are about much more than sex/romance, are they not?

      Interesting. Am I interpreting what you’re saying correctly?

      Thanks again for stopping by.

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  2. I’m with you. I need something more in a story to hang my hat on than sweaty bodies. Yes, they can be fun reads, but an entire novel’s worth? Oy, the chaffing! Balance the sex between people I want to know outside the bedroom (or kitchen or closet or wherever they’re doing it ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) with an actual plot and I’m a happy reader.

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  3. As an editor, I tell writers that even short-form erotica should be about something besides just the sex (which can, of course, be interpreted quite broadly.) I’ve also seen the opinion that the difference between sex in Literature (upper-case intentional) and erotica is that in erotica, women get to enjoy it.

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  4. I write short stories and was thinking that I was the only one having issues with writing the sex scenes. Glad to know I’m not alone!

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  5. Just got around to reading this entry, and I, too, must say that I agree 100%. Some of the most memorable sex scenes in lesbian novels I’ve read over the years are those that take place within the context of a story (be it a novel or short story), not just a simple hook-up. I’ve read a number of anthologies of lesbian erotica, and the best pieces include some kind of back story or connection between the characters.

    I guess for me, there has to be something meaningful involved, even if it’s just a one-night stand or whatever. Otherwise, it’s just a mechanical act.

    Thanks, Andi.

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  6. I’ve been reading / writing / reviewing a fair bit of erotica and erotic romance lately, and I think what’s important (with respect to story rather than grammar, etc.) is that characters and especially character interaction are believable. In other words, a short story that’s basically just an imaginative sexual encounter can be more enjoyable and erotic than a short story where the characters are developed but in a way that leaves a sense of unreality.

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  7. Indeed. As I noted above: “[Sex] is what the characters make it, which can decrease or increase hotness factors in the telling of the story. THAT is why characters are so very important in either romance or erotica. THEY will up that heat ante, and the more you can humanize them, the more a reader can root for the hook-up, whether romantic/erotic or both.” And characterization is a crucial part of a story, and can make or break it, regardless of genre. Part of effective characterization is how “real” they seem to a reader.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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