Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Bad Sex Awards! And how to write GOOD sex

Ahhh, goodie, it's that Bad Sex Awards time of year again. Always a winner on the calendar, because we're being all good and literary, but we're reading about sex! and having a good-natured guffaw at some otherwise excellent novelists who come all undone when their characters' clothes do. Every year the Literary Review gathers up the worst offenders for our prurient delectation, and The Guardian has just released this year's crop of quotes.

If you include sex in your writing (and why on earth wouldn't you? It's hardly outside the business of being human, and certainly more likely to affect characters' lives than the food we're so happy to describe) here's a few tips on what to do, with a few gleeful examples of what not to do, from this year's and last year's crop. It goes without saying this is NSFW, unless your employers are cool with cringe-making descriptions of sex and your colleagues want you to read bits out so you can all cry with laughter.

First things first: use names for parts - the actual natural names you'd use in real life. Seriously, it's fine. And you don't need a sudden slew of synonyms: if a chair stays "the chair" the second time you refer to it, instead of "the four-legged hard-backed seating appliance" or "the wooden support", you can carry on calling a cock a cock. If you're writing from your character's point of view, use the names they would use in real life.
I started inching my way back up, continuing to stimulate her manually, until the beast found its way in.
The Hormone Factory by Saskia Goldschmidt (2014)
This is first-person writing. This character is referring to his own cock as "the beast". Really? Was that an intentional attempt to characterise him as a monumentally arrogant tosser? Similarly, there's much more than just that wrong with this Morrissey excerpt, but it's a fine example of what happens when you avoid names for parts:
At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.
List of the Lost by Morrissey
His bulbous salutation. His bulbous salutation. There's no excuse for that: we have a wide range of perfectly sensible names here.  And then "the otherwise central zone". It is harder with women, because we don't have as many relatively neutral terms to draw on. But before you make her sound like an area on the Tube map, or go all evasive and Wilbur Smith with "her dark triangle", consider what term your character would use, in that context, and go with that. You can normalise a word within your writing simply by using it in your writing. Go on, say it.

Don't be shy. If your characters are supposed to be turned on and you're not, something's awry. People say "think about your readers" but this is definitely not the moment to be thinking about your readers (unless you intensely fancy one of them).  If you're worried about your mum reading what you've written, stop thinking about your mum.  You can always glue those pages together when you give her a copy of the book. Shyness can take a number of forms, so here are a few of them...

Don't be gross. Sex isn't gross, it's awesome. Usually when writers get gross it's to pretend they're Above all that sort of thing, which is really just another form of shyness. Yes, we do things during sex that might be gross or unattractive outside it - licking bits and yelling and getting all red-faced - but our bodies have magical chemical means to manage this, so do the same in your writing: represent the experience, not just the external facts. If your characters are enjoying having sex, the writing should reflect that.  And try not to sound like an alien writing erotica and pretending not to be horrified by the human body.  Who can forget last year's "twitching fairy penguin"?
As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl.
Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014)
his bulbous salutation... whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body
List of the Lost by Morrissey
Lotto, who was always ready, who was ready at the most abstract imaginings of a girl – footprints of a sandpiper like a crotch, gallons of milk evoking boobs – was not ready at this oh-so-abrupt beginning. It didn’t matter. Gwennie shoved him in though she was dry.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
"We can't," she begins. His mouth is on hers; his tongue is jabbing around her gums, the wrinkled roof of her mouth.
The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh  (2014)
Heaven only knows whose point of view that last snippet is from, but whoever it is, they are definitely not enjoying this and I think they should just stop, out of respect for everyone. So: don't be gross about bodies, but don't magic them away either.

Being literary doesn't mean pretending bodies don't exist. The same writing rules as ever apply: write with granular, specific, well-chosen detail.
She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour. Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail. She was a little overwhelmed with being the adored focus of such power, as he rose and fell. She felt certain now that there was a heaven and that it was here, in her body. The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her.
The Age of Magic by Ben Okri (2014)
In this 2014 winning passage, it's not even entirely clear that sex is definitely what's happening, barring the barest of hints. You're not more "literary" if you pretend bodies don't exist. There is literally and literarily no other part of writing in which we would try to describe a scene and try to pretend it's not bodies doing it. Oddly, I found the same thing in the more religious Mills & Boon novels when I was 14, and at the end, just as you expected the couple (now safely married) to have sex, the roof would fly off, angels would pour in, sunlight everywhere, etc. Even at that age, I said to my friend, dubious and puzzled, "I always thought sex would be a bit more... sticky." So: seriously. You are definitely not being more literary by more closely resembling a religious Mills & Boon.

Avoid the manual. People do, by and large, know how sex works, so you can describe some of what the bodies are doing, but you don't have to carefully specify every movement of every limb, as if the reader is anxiously trying to copy the position.
While we talked, I slid my hand beneath her sweats, pushed the crotch of her damp lace panties aside, slipped my longest finger inside her, and stroked her clit. It got warm in the room. She lay back on the couch and arched her back, and I peeled off her pants and thong. Now she was nude. I stripped down to my boxer briefs and crouched over her. I let her pull me free because I knew she liked to. She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide, and then I split her.
The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos
I certainly know exactly what they did, but I'll have to take the writer's word that she was "wet as a waterslide", because certainly no-one else is.

Top tip for avoiding the manual: don't ever bother saying "left" or "right". By the time you're specifying his left arm on her right shoulder while his right hand strokes down her left flank, I've stopped reading and got out the artist's mannequins to try and work out what's happening. Stick to your character's point of view: we very rarely think about the fact that it's our left hand doing something, unless that lack of dexterity (or extra dexterity, for lefties) matters.


Write horny, edit calm. All the above examples, the eww-gross, the too-rarified-for-bodies, the perform-x-then-y, can usually be avoided if you let yourself get hot under the collar and enjoy that this is what bodies do. What's missing from them is the characters' experience: the experience that this is wonderful, not gross; the experience that this is embodied, actually physically happening; and the experience that this is more than the sum of its component mechanical actions. So write horny - but then edit calm, to avoid the other slew of giggles.

End your sentences occasionally. If you're all gleefully caught up in the writing action, it's very easy to just run on sentences endlessly, panting and gasping, because who could possibly interpose something as mundane as a full stop in the middle of all that? Fair enough. First drafts of battle scenes and anything highly emotive tend to do the same thing. Aftewards, though, throw in some full stops.  It doesn't mean they've stopped; it's just how sentences work.

Far in the back of whatever was left of his mind, the light of reason was struggling against being finally extinguished and he was aware that wearing a condom would’ve been a good idea, but there was no way that he was getting out of her, because she took him in and he was with her in every move, in every gasp, kiss, and lick – she let him in so deep he didn’t have to think about her, and therefore he didn’t have to think about himself, but of course he was thinking about not thinking about himself …
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon
Yes, a good run-on sentence can sometimes be used to indicate that a character is intensely caught up in something, but full stops are far less invasive to a reader than they usually feel to a writer. Right where that em-dash is? Perfect spot for a full stop. I'd also pop one after "extinguished" and take out the "and". And then we'd get this:
Far in the back of whatever was left of his mind, the light of reason was struggling against being finally extinguished. He was aware that wearing a condom would’ve been a good idea, but there was no way that he was getting out of her, because she took him in and he was with her in every move, in every gasp, kiss, and lick. She let him in so deep he didn’t have to think about her, and therefore he didn’t have to think about himself, but of course he was thinking about not thinking about himself …
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon
Still not flawless, but what a difference a couple of full stops make.

Throw in ALL THE METAPHORS - then cut them back. While you're writing, feel free to use all the metaphor you want, as wildly as you want. No-one likes being edited while they're actually writing, so don't do it to yourself; write freely. That's the only way to get the good metaphors out, anyway - to be non-judgemental, which means putting down the cringey ones too, when you're in the heat of writing. Afterwards, though, edit it. Check your metaphors to make sure you've not using them just to avoid squeamishness about the fact that they're Doing The Sex With Actual Bodies, like Okri. And cut back the purpler and more excited passages. An occasional fine metaphor is a beautiful thing. A rash of metaphors just makes everyone cringe and giggle. The wrong one just stymies us all.
Her mouth was intensely ovoid, an almond mouth, of citrus crescents. And under that sling, her breasts were like young fawns, sheep frolicking in hyssop.
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Yes, "young fawns" is a deliberate Biblical reference.  No, it doesn't work in the Bible either. I don't know anyone who hasn't read that "young fawns" thing in Song of Solomon without giggling like crazy. I have no idea what her mouth is supposed to look like, but it does seem to suggest that her teeth are lemony and yellow.  As for anyone's breasts being like sheep frolicking in hyssop - sorry, what the hell?  Are these woolly tits bouncing around in a medicinal plant? Whose breasts are anything remotely resembling sheep?

Metaphors are supposed to help us understand something better. Do check your metaphors against that criterium.

Hold the bathos. It's hard to say exactly why this happens - but it reads like someone allowed themselves to get carried away, and was quite enjoying it all, and then suddenly remembered they ought to be literary and pulled up short.
She reached up and brought him to her, then rolled over on top of him and began softly to move down. When she took him, still a little flaccid, into her mouth, he moaned, ‘Oh, lover.’ She felt him harden, and she tightened her lips and pulled, and then ran her tongue slow along the shaft, and then straightened and straddled him, guiding him into her, sinking and rising on him, head back, hands gripping his shoulders. It went on. It was very good.
– Before, During, After by Richard Bausch
It was good... until the last two lines, which is when I guffawed. Perhaps a bit focused on the mechanics, but going strongly, and then... "It went on. It was very good." Try to imagine your lover asking who how it was for you, and you replying, "It went on. It was very good." The way to balance write-horny vs edit-calm in writing sex well isn't to start off with some half-decent sex and then undercut it.


So how do you do it right? Use natural words for parts. Don't let shyness take over: don't be gross; don't pretend bodies don't exist; don't write a manual. Write horny, but then edit calm, and when you're editing, end sentences occasionally, trim back your metaphors to the finest ones which also make actual sense, and hold the bathos. Include the scenes that matter to the story, and yes, it's very likely that sex matters in your character's story, what with them being human and all.

Mostly, all this comes back to the usual tips for writing. Find the vocabulary you need. Write from your character's point of view - reflect what's happening and their experience of what's happening, which is the combined wonder of point-of-view writing. Write freely, then edit your work well. Follow the story. Practice lots and read plenty. If you've never put your dirty thoughts into words, try it - in your notebook or sexting or both. If you're more comfortable with it, it won't seem so alarming to write in your story. And read some good-quality erotica to see how it's done. Kristina Lloyd and Janine Ashbless are both top notch. Short-story collections are a good way in, because you'll get a wider range of approaches. It's research. Enjoy! ;)

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