I started off so strong with that November 5 milestone, I truly believed I’d have another 10K by November 20. Naturally, I immediately hit another roadblock. One day, the only words added were “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO TURN THIS CONVERSATION TO THE DEAD.” Unlike my chronic problem with transitions between physical locations, I can’t hit Enter a couple of times and resume with “Eventually, the conversation turned to all those dead bodies readers haven’t been thinking about at all.” The solution as it currently stands is clumsy, but it did get me past the obstruction and up to 80,000 words.
Honestly, those dead folks are something most readers won’t WANT to think about. I already know my editor will try to talk me out of it, and it would probably be wise to listen to her. Right now, though, I’m not in a sugar-coating mood. The brutal realities of this fictional situation demand my acknowledgment. Between now and revision, I need to figure out whether the stakes of keeping this section are criticism I can live with or harm I don’t want to commit. I don’t believe a content warning at the start of the book excuses the latter.
Anyway, after all the DEATH, there was extremely necessary bathing and comfort sex. And NOW we get to schlep up the mountain to either kill or make an ill-advised bargain with a dragon. I don’t foresee the ascent or the scaly confrontation taking a huge number of words, so I’m going to optimistically guesstimate the next milestone will get us a teeny bit into the next big setting change, where all but the final few scenes occur.
Suddenly, this seems much closer to the end than it should be and feels WILDLY imbalanced as a result.
Excuse me while I hyperventilate.
Okay, enough of that. Perception is unreliable. All that matters is the words that end up on the page, and I can’t judge anything partially written. If it turns out the back “half” is underweight, I’m sure there’s plenty in the front half that can be cut. I’ll deal with that problem when its turn comes.
I’ve written so much porn (in the true sense of the word, not a catchall for every form of sexual content) in the past couple of years, sex has become the most boring thing to write about. I strongly believe that variety of boredom is how we get things like double-dicked heroes from mainstream publishers whose editors are also bored.
Fear not (or Sorry, depending on your preferences): The fantasy romance isn’t going to Funkytown on that train. I get to exercise my “creativity” through other venues with things like Santa Claus/Cthulu tentacle porn. (What can I say? The pay is excellent and on time, every time, which is more than I can say for any other writing gig I’ve had in the past 24 years.) It just means I’m not going to contort myself trying to reinvent the sex scene, which is actually pretty liberating.
Point being, I write a ton of fucking entirely for the sake of fucking, which has created an illusion of expertise among the few people who sorta-know about this side hustle.
A friend who writes in another genre and has been a romance reader for decades wanted to try writing a romance. She thought it was going well until she got to the first sex scene. She’s very sex-positive. She’s not shy about writing sex. But she can look at what she’s written and tell it’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award material. She doesn’t understand the chasm between her intent and execution and asked for my thoughts.
I think this is a surmountable craft problem. Per usual, I’ll approach it in a roundabout fashion.
Well-written dialogue isn’t a faithful transcript of real-life speech with all its ums and tics and interruptions and abandoned thoughts and redundancy. Like any other element in a story, dialogue should reveal character and/or further plot without a lot of wasted words. Many new writers haven’t learned to use dialogue functionally to that end, and their characters’ speaking is like a spot-on recreation of eavesdropping on the most boring table at Olive Garden.
Unintentionally awkward sex scenes often come from the same place. (No, not Olive Garden. Unless…🤔) The writer knows the mechanics of the real-life sex they want to put on the page, but “touch that, lick that, stick that in there” is clinical and about as inspiring as reading instructions for bookshelf assembly.
In a visual medium like film, sex has to look sexy. There are subtle mood manipulators like lighting, filters, and music, but the camera is focused on body parts and the movement thereof at varying levels of zoom. It’s all about visible mechanics because that’s how film audiences engage with the material.
The audience of written media brings their imagination to the endeavor. They supply their own imagery from a suggestion of physical detail and tone. When writers go on and on and on and on about physical details, it can become a chore for the reader to keep track of whose what goes where, and there’s increased risk of piling on something the reader will find the opposite of sexy or be compelled to fact check questionable physics or otherwise experience undesirable destruction of immersion.
Therefore, in written form, the mechanics are the least important part of sex. I’m not advocating leaving them out entirely (unless sex-free is the way you decide to go), but faithfully reproducing every second of real-life sex will be a slog to read. Focus on the function of the scene rather than the bodies in it. The core function of any scene is change—how does this sexual encounter change the relationship/feelings? What problems does it resolve and/or create? What effect do you want the scene to have—intimacy, pure titillation, comedy? Load up on sensory details consistent with the tone you want to set. Incorporate the setting rather than relying entirely on body parts to provide sensation. To convey anticipation, excitement, urgency, etc., you need the characters’ thoughts more than their hip pumping—take full advantage of the window into the POV character’s mind that the written word provides. Sex scenes don’t occur in a vacuum—find a thought that ties the scene to the past and/or future in the story (hey hey, there’s that plot progression we love so much).
Most of the time, dropping a lot of the mechanical detail and giving more attention to the sensory/emotional experience and the function of the scene in the context of the whole story leads to better written sex.
(Or at least briefer written sex with less opportunity to make readers cringe.)