Monday, March 26, 2007

Sexier Than You Think

Those category romance books are all smouldering glances and unrequited desire but when it comes to the crunch the bedroom door closes, we fade to black or cut to a crackling fire, right?


Rising category romance star
Julie Cohen explains just how dirty those innocent looking books can be (and how dirty they *can't* be) and lets us in on where she finds her smuttiest inspiration.


As a young teenager, I learned about sexual relationships from two secret sources: a stack of Penthouse Forum magazines I found in a closet, and from Harlequin and Silhouette novels that I sneak-read in the library. One source was about sex. One was about love. It’s probably not surprising that I grew up to write sexy category romance.

In the kind of romance I write, sexual tension and emotion is more important than sex. Usually, I have to think up characters who lust after each other, but who have very compelling reasons never to have sex with each other, ever.

So I might spend most of the novel building up to a sex scene. For example, in my latest release, Driving Him Wild (Mills & Boon Modern Extra, February 2007), my heroine, Zoe, is irresistably attracted to the hero, Nick, from the moment she meets him being difficult on her doorstep. Nick, however, isn’t attracted to Zoe sexually at first. He likes her, and he particularly likes winding her up, but she’s a tomboy and not his usual type, so the idea of sex with her doesn’t even occur to him until, out of the blue, suddenly he can’t get it out of his head.

What this means is that Zoe picks up on early signals that Nick isn’t interested in her, and therefore she spends most of the book struggling against her attraction, because who needs the humiliation of trying to seduce someone who’s not interested? And then, when he makes his interest very blatantly clear (he’s wearing exercise shorts at the time, and it’s pretty darn blatant, hooray!), she thinks it’s because he feels sorry for her.

In a 216-page book, the first sex scene starts on page 150. And even then their problems aren’t over, because Zoe finds it far too difficult to trust. Every sex scene after that first one is focused on trying to get her to let her defenses down.

On the other hand, maybe I have two characters who lust after each other and have no reason not to sleep together. That’s what happens in my October 2006 release, Married in a Rush. Jo and Bruno are both commitment-phobes, and within half an hour of bumping into each other, total strangers, in the National Gallery in London, they’re having sex with each other in a broom closet (on page 27 of a 216-page novel).

If you begin a romance with your characters getting it on, you have to then come up with reasons why they can’t get it on again for much of the rest of the book. With Jo and Bruno, there is a simple reason--the condom fails, and she gets pregnant. Because they’re having a baby together, but because neither of them wants a committed relationship, they agree they have to try their best not to sleep together again: it will only complicate things.

(The title of the book sort of gives away what happens. I wanted to call it Remarkably Penetrative Sperm, but my editor, alas, said no. Marriages of convenience are a major hook for category book buyers. Sperm, apparently, isn’t.)

My June 2007 release, All Work And No Play... is similar in that the characters have sex with each other right away , and I had to think up a compelling reason why they couldn’t have sex again until near the end of the book. In that case, it’s because of a mistaken identity: she thinks he’s a stranger, when in fact he’s her best online buddy, the one she can’t afford to lose if (when) their relationship goes wrong.

So I spend a lot of my sexy novels stopping my characters from having sex with each other, which is pretty fun for me. (Less fun for them.) When they do finally get busy, I have to concentrate on character arc and emotional intensity as much as on the sex. Because while the reader wants to read a good steamy scene, she also wants to be taken on an emotional journey and fall in love along with the characters.

There’s also the tricky bit about writing explicit sex scenes that aren’t too explicit. Personally, I like to call a penis a penis, and I don’t have much truck with buttered muffins and throbbing flagstaffs (unless it’s for humour). But there are some words I can’t use, because they’d be offensive to the reader. When I wrote an erotic novel with my best friend recently, it was incredibly liberating to be able to use four-letter words, and to have my characters shout them out, repeatedly.

As long as my language is fairly clean, I can describe what I want to, though because the focus is on romance rather than sex, I try to make it more sexy than sexual, and any kink has to relate directly to the character arc and emotion. There can’t be anything that will distract the reader; the fantasy is about two people who are wildly attracted and in love with each other, not the sexual act in itself. Definitely no gimp masks or enormous dildoes or horny Alsatians. I save those for my private life.

One of my editors removed a reference to (male) pubic hair once, but I’ve included it since without any problem, which is good, because romance heroes don’t tend to wax. Another editor took out a description of the hero disposing of a used condom, and I sort of agree with that because it is gross, but hey, it’s an important part of real-life sex, and, to me, an indication that he’s not a slob.

On balance, I’m glad I read the Penthouse Forums as well as the category romance--just as I have fun these days writing romantic sex scenes, and erotic ones. They’re two different views of fantasy. And we can never have enough of that.

Amazon UK links
Driving Him Wild, Married in a Rush, All Work and No Play


And Julie has two treats for viewers. The first is the chance to nip over to her blog and win a copy of Driving Him Wild. The second is a very worthwhile new recruit for the Mathilde Madden Foundation for the Preservation of Dangerously Naked Men. Of course, we're talking about passion and fashion this week. And if you are Guy Pearce, what could be more fashionable than the "Oops, all my clothes have accidentally fallen off" look.


Portia Da Costa said...

Fantastic post, Julie! And lovely to see you here...

I've read some awesomely wonderful sex scenes in 'category' romance novels, but I do prefer the ones where the author has been allowed to get slightly more realistic. I always smile when someone writes something like 'and suddenly she realised she was naked'... I think that no matter how besotted you were with a guy, you'd notice when he was trying to haul a skinny top off over your head, or peel you out of form fitting jeans! LOL

Oh my God, that pic of Guy Pearce... can I get a physical copy of it to buy anywhere? I'm sort of into him quite a bit now... [Don't worry, Vin... still love you best!]

Olivia Knight said...

I remember protesting to one of my friends about some early romance books - these were historical squeakier-than-squeaky-clean books (Barbara Cartland, I think). We were both completely innocent good church-going girls (oh how the prissy have fallen...) without the least idea what sex was like, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it probably *didn't* involve rooves disappearing and choirs of angels descending. I very nearly ruptured our friendship forever by saying "I always got the feeling sex was just a lot stickier than that."
My next encounter with romance was reading Germaine Greer - I don't remember which one - but it included excerpts of romance novels as a demonstration of the sheer audacity of ideas women buy into, etc, etc. Reading GG on the tube fitted much better with my self-perception than reading romance, of course. But to my horror I found I was reading it *for the excerpts*! Suddenly my highly principled feminism AND my preference for lean elven men both vanished before a laughable description of a rugged jaw and a masterful gaze... (sigh) I guess there's a clear part of me that has something going for womanisers, too...
As they say, pride comes before a fall, and all my smug little prejudices eventually had to go tits-up. I discovered both me and romance books had changed a LOT since I was sixteen. Hurrah! And hurrah to you, Julie, for helping me discover that.

Nikki H said...

Great post, Julie!

And wow...(wolf whistles!) Guy Pearce!

Nikki H said...

Incidentally, why doesn't my DH have a bod like that? If he could just get rid of the beer belly...

...and the chubby neck
...and the attitude

Oh dear. Soon I'll want to trade him in for a completely new model! Where's Richard Armitage at the moment?

Nikki Magennis said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks so much for joining us and making me laugh on a very stressed Monday morning! I think we were overdue a bit of romance round here.

It's interesting how the sex is treated so differently in category romance. I think delayed gratification is a very sexy plot device, actually. That's my excuse for having no sex in my next erotic book... : )

I have a couple of questions...

Do you write romance and erotica under the same name? And could you tell me a little about 'Spirit willing, Flesh Weak'? I liked the sound of that one. One last one - is there a place for humour in category romance?

Julie Cohen said...

Hmm, it seems to me as if I actually ended up posting about how I *avoided* writing about sex in my category fact, I write about it quite a lot. As much as I possibly can--as long as it fits the emotional arc, of course.

I can happily say I've never cut to a crackling fire in my life!

Thank you for your comments everyone and I will start to reply to them now!

Julie Cohen said...

Lovely to see you too, Portia!

I have read some very good sex scenes in category romance. Personally I like the emphasis on emotion and feelings, because I think those are the most sexy part of sex. I've always preferred the category lines with more sex in them (Desire and Temptation way back in the day, and Modern Extra and Blaze these days), but even the ones that do "fade to black" can be quite sexy, because of the whole tension thing.

And that photo of Guy Pearce...I found it online some time ago and saved it, which is a good thing as I've never seen it elsewhere since. So obviously I had to share with you lot!

julie Cohen said...

Hold on, Olivia, you mean you DON'T have the choirs of angels thing with sex? How do you get rid of those guys? ;-)

Romance novels certainly have changed, and the popularity of erotica has affected the romance genre. I know Harlequin/Mills & Boon, who can be stereotyped as publishing the squeaky-clean novels, have a new erotica imprint, Spice.

I understand the whole GG uni I took this great course called "Feminism or Smut?" about popular fiction. Usually it turned out to be both. Brilliant.

julie Cohen said...

Nikki H, I really think that slending most of one's life in a fantasy world has definite attractions... ;-)

julie Cohen said...

Nikki M, I think we can all benefit from a little romance...and maybe delayed gratification too. (I should probably be delaying my chocolate gratification a bit more these days.)

I haven't had any erotica published yet (I did write an erotic science fiction romantic comedy with my best friend, though) and I'm not sure if I would use my own name. I wouldn't be shy about it, but it's the whole "brand" thing.

Thank you for asking about my books! "Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak" was my first book for Headline's new romance imprint, Little Black Dress. (My second, "One Night Stand", is out in November.) It's about a fake psychic who accidentally makes a true prediction, and her relationship with the sexy reporter who wants to prove she's a fraud. It's a bit more "chick-litty" than my category romance, though still sexy nd fun.

And humour definitely has a place in category romance, though in some lines more than others. My books for Modern Extra are funny (well I think they are) and fast-paced and there is also often humour in the Romance line (though no sex in that one!). Not slapstick, but some funny moments, definitely, as long as it doesn't detract from the emotion. Some humour can be quite distancing.

Nikki Magennis said...

No slapstick? Damn. I love slapstick.

'Erotic science fiction romantic comedy' -Blimey!

SWFW sounds great. I'm going to put it on my wishlist. : )

Alison Tyler said...

This is such a fun post! Thanks so much for joining us, Julie!

As a smut writer, I've often spent time doing the exact opposite.... Oh, god, I'm on page 6, and nobody has fucked yet... I had an editor call me once and say, "Um, where's the sex... I'm almost through the first chapter..." I used to always start books with a prologue that included very dramatic sex, and then I'd dive into the story in Chapter 1. I love reading about the flipside, no sex until page 150... lots of sexual tension, though. Sounds wonderful!


I used to read those Penthouse Forums and Variations, too. While babysitting. Love, love, love Variations!!! *waving to Rachel and Barbara*

Portia Da Costa said...

"Personally I like the emphasis on emotion and feelings, because I think those are the most sexy part of sex."

Hear, hear! That's exactly how I feel about erotic writing! I love writing about the feelings and thoughts, rather than just the physical sensations etc. Without the emotional richness, it's all just plumbing...

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

What I find interesting is that authors (including Teresa and I) complain that editors keep asking for the sex scenes early, but readers keep complaining that erotic romance and erotica throw in too many sex scenes and don't allow the emotional development as part of the physical relationship.

Personally, I'd rather get to know the characters and be dying for them to go to bed together, then have them jump into bed in the first few pages on the basis of a really strong attraction and no emotion.

How do we explain that to our editors?!

Kate Pearce said...

Hi Julie and thanks for your interesting post. I submitted "Where have all the cowboys gone?" to Harlequin Blaze before Virgin Cheek bought it!

I have a great respect for Harlequin and having failed 4 times (and counting) to get something past them, I know the competition is stiff!

Sexual tension is so important in any book. I often read category and inspirational romances to see how good writers do it without the inevitable sex scenes. It's a challenge and its a good way to improve my own writing.

Do you still think that HM&B buys authors who fit the tone and feel and voice of the line rather than as individuals? I'm thinking this is changing.

Olivia Knight said...

Oh, of *course* I get choirs of angels and disappearing rooves and galaxies of stars every time; that was just when I was young and virginal (yup, there was a time) and failed to realise the interest Raphael would take in my most intimate moments...

I'm one hundred percent behind emotions building and delayed gratification being an essential in erotica - of course, one trick is to get your heroine to sleep with other men in the meantime! (Making it fit with the 'emotional arc' is more complex, but as a natural slut myself I think I can get my head around that.) But yes - it's something you have much more opportunity to do in romance, which is so much of its appeal.

P.S. For everyone who was in Sex In Public - I got some hilarious feedback from my ex-boss. She exlaimed in blushing shock that it was "like reading porn!"
Um - LIKE reading porn? Were we doing something wrong? Lol.

julie Cohen said...

Nikki, there used to be romantic comedy category lines, but they keep on getting cancelled. Which is too bad.

I had an editor call me once and say, "Um, where's the sex...

LOL Alison, now that's pressure to perform!

And yes, I seem to remember dirty mags while babysitting too...

Julie Cohen said...

Without the emotional richness, it's all just plumbing...

And that's one reason why I love your books, Portia--emotions are foremost and intact!

Dayle it's interesting that you find your readers asking for more sexual tension/emotion and less sex. I think tension and real character arc are difficult to do, and therefore probably more of a fun challenge for us writers!

Then again it's not everyone who can describe the "plumbing" in a sexy way...

Julie Cohen said...

Kate, I had four rejections from Harlequin Temptation before I sold to them--and one rejection from Blaze afterwards. They're not an easy nut to crack.

I think they do buy on individual author voice, BUT their sales strategy is all about the line. Readers will buy their favourite authors, but new authors sell because they are part of the line (Blaze, or whatever). Therefore there needs to be some continuity through the line--not in a formulaic way, but in a way that every book fulfils particular reader expectations for that line.

So they buy individual authors who can fulfil the line's promise. Does that make sense?

I was very lucky in that I was a lead author for Modern Extra so I've been able to play around with things, because the line is still in its formative stage.

Julie Cohen said...

I'm one hundred percent behind emotions building and delayed gratification being an essential in erotica - of course, one trick is to get your heroine to sleep with other men in the meantime!

LOL, Olivia, that is one thing I'm NEVER allowed to do in category romance! It's strictly hero and heroine. Anything else gets in the way of the romantic fantasy.

It was fun for me in my latest book for Little Black Dress to make the heroine have sex (and get pregnant) with someone who's not the hero in chapter two.

Alison Tyler said...

of course, one trick is to get your heroine to sleep with other men in the meantime!

I did this with Strictly Confidential... sort of. I had a secondary character who had all of the sex. Until she died... so I had to keep her alive for a very long time. But as it was supposed to be a murder mystery, my editor called and said, "Um, I'm 2/3 of the way through, and the girl is still alive..."

Can't win 'em all, I guess. :)

Janine Ashbless said...

I notice that a lot of the modern M&B category romance novels don't actually have titles, they have job descriptions: "Surgeon Looking for New Mother for His Baby"; "First Love at Christmas" etc, so that the reader knows exactly what she's buying before she opens the book.

This narrow obsessive focus on a particular formula (MUST have doctors, or MUST have an older single father) seems to be the exact equivilent of the mens' porn you get in Nexus and the like (MUST have spanking, MUST have pony girls)where they actually now put icons on the spine to tell you which fetish it caters to.


But I am in sympathy with the delayed gratification thing. It makes the sex hotter and allows the characters space to come alive.

Julie Cohen said...

This narrow obsessive focus on a particular formula (MUST have doctors, or MUST have an older single father)...

The titles are chosen by editorial, Janine, and they often use "hook" words or phrases to appeal to particularly popular themes with readers. These vary according to line (for example Medical romances tend to have doctors, Modern/Presents often have sheikhs or billionaires). I agree that they do make the books seem as if they're written according to a formula, but that's not the case.

Often, the titles pick up a "hook" that's not even particularly important to the book. (An example is my book "Delicious", which is coming out in the USA next summer as "MacAllister's Baby", even though MacAllister doesn't have a baby during the events of the story.) Authors don't write according to a formula (other than the fact that it's romance and needs a happy ending within certain parameters of the line). And not all the titles are "hooky"--the ones in the line I write for, Modern Extra, aren't so much like that.

A lot of the authors aren't thrilled about the formulaic titles, which make quite different books sound the same, but market research says that they work in selling books.

On the other hand, like Nexus as you say, they are very strongly oriented towards appealing to particular readers' preferences, and pick up on those through the packaging, title, and line parameters. Not little symbols yet!

Madeline said...

What a lively post! I'm fascinated to get an insider's perspective on writing romance. I took wrote a proposal for Harlequin, a long time ago, called 'Insence of Love'. Part romance and part jewel heist (!)
Harlequin passed. But it's still one of my dreams (along with having a story in Susie Bright's 'Best American Erotica...' but that's for another post) to write for Harlequin. It's so enticing, what with the publisher starting out in my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and moving to my new home town of Toronto, Ontario. Just think, I could meet with my editor! OMG!
Alison I laughed out loud at the secondary character in your murder mystery who was too busy having sex to get murdered...oops!
I have struggled mightily with the whole romance genre - the problem of having two people attracted to each other but not having sex, and why not? It was great to read your list of ways you've kept your twosome apart until the end of the book, Julie. Food for thought. I do FINALLY have a reason for two people not to get together and I'm dying to get to work on it but have some erotica to polish off first. Any insider tips on the best way to submit to romance publishers? Any little tricks that might help an aspiring romance author who has up to now only published erotica? It may be too late for questions for the author (it's Tuesday) and if so, let me just say, I enjoyed this post thoroughly, and learned something, too! Thank you.

Julie Cohen said...

Madeline I'm glad you enjoyed my post, thank you! Let me clarify and say that characters CAN have sex in a category romance, and lots of it, but of course the sex has to reflect their emotional conflict. I often think that a sex scene in a romance usually makes the relationship more difficult, rather than less.

Submitting to romance publishers...well, for category romance (as you're talking about Harlequin), the best thing to do before you write or submit is to read lots of the books and figure out which line you prefer. Then make sure you understand the requirements for that line (eg Blaze has a sexual premise, Modern/Presents has super-alpha heroes, Romance has lots of emotion, Intrigue includes suspense, each line has different lengths, etc). When you submit to Harlequin/Silhouette/Mills & Boon (they're all the same company run out of different offices), you submit to a particular line, so it's best if you know your stuff.

I found out lots of information about writing category romance on the eHarlequin website community,

I know at least three erotica writers who have been subesequently published in category romance and I'm sure there are lots more.