Monday, November 19, 2007

Stories with the sex left in

by Olivia Knight

montage of porn characters

“So, what do you write?”
Say “porn” to most people and they’ll think of – well, actually they’ll choke on their drink and think of how to get air back in their lungs, but when they’ve finished, they tend to think of the following. Plumbers. Policemen. Firemen. Hell, the whole cast of the Village People. “Schtopp! Schtopp! Dis blue movie is not ready yet. Vere is his mustache? Vhy is he actually fixing ze fridge?” Sex toys. You, naked. Latex. Neighbours (not the soap). Teachers.

“And the girls you have to tell
To pull their socks up
Are the ones whose pants
You’d most like to pull down.”
- Philip Larkin (the dirty bugger)

Doctors and nurses. Nymphomaniacs. Special “institutions”. Whips and chains. The full enyclopedia of sexual variations from anal to zoophilia with special attention to group sex, m/m, m/f/m, f/f/m, f/t/m/f, and no, I don’t know what 't' stands for either. And I don’t write any of this. I write stories. With the sex left in. Fantasy, sci-fi, realist, magical realist, mainstream, literary – and with the sex left in.

defending the parapets

Erotica is a minefield for sexual tropes. From the Black Lace guidelines, you imagine the editor under seige, valiantly defending the parapets against a relentless onslaught of jet-set businesswomen copping off on planes, fashion photographers in fetish clubs, and Arab princes with foot-long schlongs. Also, mystifyingly, an army of women taking scented baths. All these tropes are clichés that, for various troubling reasons, people find horny. I’m not criticising. After all, I’m fine with fantasy tropes, and for deeply troubling reasons love nothing better than an undemocratic, feudal and rigidly classist society – as long as there are a few dragons about the place. But those sexual tropes aren’t story to me.

I develop ideas for my erotica stories as I develop all my stories – with a jumble of images, a resonant line, a sense of an issue at the core of the heroine’s life, a scrap of personal philosophy, a need, an academic idea, or a mood, or any mixture of the above, scribbling and staring and walking and daydreaming as the elements of story jostle into position, then writing it all down and figuring out how to sew it together, finding reasons why she won’t know this yet or how to keep him off the scene or where that information comes from or how it all started. What I never do is start with a trope: “I want to write an m/f/m scene” or “How about bondage?” I rarely even consider the sex, then I stare at my first rough outline, puzzled, and mutter to myself “Uh – where’s the sex?”

Where’s the sex? Everywhere. Give me a hero and a heroine who remain on separate desert islands for the duration of the novel and somehow, by the time I’ve finished writing it, it’s teeming with sex. As most characters aren’t marooned and isolated, it’s even easier. If anything, the difficulty is excluding sex from my mainstream novels, reluctantly fading to black, cheating my characters of their perfect moment and my readers of the romantic climax – just as I berate other authors for doing.

motes of dust in a shaft of light

Sex is everywhere, like dust, and here’s the odd thing. Every novelist, at some point in their career, and often at some point in every book, will describe the dust – the golden motes dancing in a shaft of sunshine, glittering in the late afternoon stillness, spiralling like a stream of cosmic particles, twirling their infinitesmal and tiny brilliances, or what you will. Personally, I think this is due to how much time we spend in empty houses staring into space. But dust changes nothing. Sex can change everything – the shape of your home, the books on your shelves, what country you live in, whether you take that job, the coming-together or utter ruination of your life, whether you cry in the shower or sing in the street. You could lose everything. You could gain the world. So why describe dust and not sex? That’s why I write stories with the sex left in.

“Left in” is the crux. In a novel covering a year, ten sex scenes – some maybe not including the protagonist – isn’t an orgy by anyone’s standards. If there’s a relationship going on, you’re probably leaving out more sex than you’re including – you won’t describe every long lazy Saturday morning, unless something changes between them, that time. If the characters aren’t together, or were, and now want to be, their heads are probably teeming with sex. If you have more than two characters, there’s more sex than anyone can include in just one book. Sex is as ubiquitous as food, pervasive as air, and universal as love, and the latter is probably why sex will always creep into all my stories, because they’re all concerned with love – the epic kind, with armies, ghosts, castles, spaceships (still trying to get this one past the Powers That Be), dragons – destiny – a world gone mad! Widespread destruction! Betrayal! True love! A cast of thousands!

hero on horseback
This picture from

When my characters are chasing destiny, coming to terms with their true selves, and fighting for their lives, there’s just no room to crow-bar in some m/f/m – though it might happen. It depends on the story. Everything depends on the story. I do use tropes, in my own way – what else is a cold stone castle or a dragon, after all? Ancient fertility rites: guilty. Erotically charged magic: guilty. Inexplicable sexual desire based in powers what man is not meant to wot of: guilty as charged. I don’t see them as sexual tropes so much as metaphors, though, for a level of passion that’s as real as a Saturday morning and as mythical as a pre-destined king. I would write these things regardless, because to me the epic matters, and I leave the sex in, because I believe sex matters. More than dust.


Dayle A. Dermatis said...

::stands up and applauds:: Brilliant post, Olivia!

"It depends on the story. Everything depends on the story."

And the characters. Because, as you say, "Sex can change everything."

Anonymous said...

Ha. Brilliant. Every smut writer should be forced to read this before they begin.

Mind you, I love it when the story is about the sex. When the drive of the narrative is about wanting a certain kind of sex or sexual experience, but I do hate crowbarred in. My pet peeve is when a previously straight female protag suddenly and out of the blue has an f/f experience for no reason other than feeling experimental. It just screams of the author scrabbling for a sexual variation and these scenes almost never advance the story!

Kristina Lloyd said...

Very smart, very funny intro!

I think someone wanting dirty sex usually provides the main, um, narrative thrust of my fiction. And a non-sex plot is woven into that which makes the getting of this sex problematic. So maybe I write sex with the story left in.

I think it amounts to the same thing though - no crowbarring, no separation - it's just a different emphasis.

Sex and desire are so fundamental to being human that we really ought to be on a better wage.

Jeremy Edwards said...

From the Black Lace guidelines, you imagine the editor under seige, valiantly defending the parapets against a relentless onslaught of jet-set businesswomen copping off on planes, fashion photographers in fetish clubs, and Arab princes with foot-long schlongs.


Those sorts of "ideas that have already been adequately covered, thank you" lists from editors always remind me of something I saw long ago in fiction guidelines from a pet-fancier's mag. The gist of it was, "Please, no more stories told using the dog as the narrator."

Janine Ashbless said...

Bravo Olivia! I love this post.

Why does sex get left out of mainstream fiction (except when the two protagonists finally get together)? Is it seen as self-indulgent? Boring? Juvenile? Why is "adult" a synonym for "worthless" - shouldn't adult topics be of interest to adult readers?

Search me guv.

I'm off to my blog to write about my health-spa weekend. Now there's an overused erotic trope!

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

I'm always deeply embarrassed when I find myself slipping into trope/gratuitous variations, but sometimes I do.

Laziness, I think, pure laziness. When I can't think of what happens next in the great overarching story, I throw in more sex.

And then, half the time, I have to revise it away because, while it's a decent sex scene, it doesn't add anything.

Megan Kerr said...

The term "pet-fanciers" always worries me... But yeah, sometimes I like sending off for guidelines just to see those lists that editors, in desperation, are forced to compile. Often it's mind-boggling what random feature recurs... Like the women in baths. I stared at that, bemused, flicked through my own folder of first attempts and failed went-nowhere stories - and closed my eyes in horror. There it was, clear as daylight: a woman in a bath. And the reason that story failed? She had no reason to get out. She's probably still in there, wrinkled as a prune.

I'm so pleased this resonates so much with other people - when I reread it this morning, I heard the orchestra striking up and Michael Ball bursting into full-throated roar: "SE-E-E-EX... SEX CHANGES EVERYTHING, BRINGS YOU GLORY... BRINGS YOU SHAME... NOTHING IN THE WORLD WILL EVER BEEEEEEEE THE.... SA-A-A-A-A-A-AME!!!! That said, feel free to disagree violently - there surely is a place for exploring the appeal of tropes such as teacher/pupil (my own naff & guilty pleasure) and if I think that place just hasn't been dug up yet, that's only my own not-very-humble opinion!

Janine - I didn't think "adult" meant "worthless". I thought it meant "sex" - as in adult book, adult movie, adult content, adult shop, adult magazine... Isn't that what being an adult is all about? Sex?

Janine Ashbless said...

Isn't that what being an adult is all about? Sex?

Also, having a mortgage, and baldness.

Sacchi Green said...

The "t" stands for transgender, which in itself includes a broad spectrum. Examples from my own limited work:

A veteran of the Civil War (over 400 women are known to have fought as men) who travels to the California gold country and lives as a man (the townsfolk assume a war wounds are responsible for the slightly high voice and lack of beard), eventually rescuing a young Chinese sex slave and taking her off to safety in a mountain cabin (in Rode Hard, Put Away Wet);

Two actors in Shakespearean times, one a woman passing as a man, one truly intersexed, assigned "on scant evidence" as a male on parish roles, but a genuine high femme as an actor (in Best Transgender Erotica).

I know there's a certain degree of squick factor here for some folks, but if you can suppress it long enough, there are writers who can make this kind of thing both moving and erotic.

Madeline Moore said...

Ah, Olivia, your writing always strike4s me as effortless, as if you are a wellspring of creativity and your work flows from you like streams, rivulets, rivers and seas.

I know this isn't true of your fiction writing, I know you suffer and curse and WORK like the rest of us, and I'm sure you know that the best of anything appears effortless, but tell me - how long does it take you to make a blog entry like today's?

It's a wonderful piece. I'm left thinkin', thinkin'... and I love thinkin'. Thank you.

On a personal note, I approach erotica writing a bit more pragmatically than you do. If I see a call for submissions, I ask myself if I have or can come up with something that fits the guidelines.

For novels, I do try to suss out what's of interest these days, what's 'new'. But it has to interest me, too, or the work won't work.

Bathtime for Heroines? Guilty. Gratuitous sex scenes. Guilty.
My defense? Women the world over take bubble baths to relax. And what is more relaxing than a little self-love? It's also my opinion that gratuitous sex scenes happen i n real life - they don't advance or detract from life/relationships (much), they happen because a couple of adults want to have sex.
If there's no place for it in erotica...where is the place for it?

Great post as usual O. Thanks!

Alison Tyler said...

God, that's funny about baths. Because I did a search for bubble baths on my hard drive this weekend and came up with exactly one story, To Lola With Love. And it's insane, because I actually love baths. But I suppose my characters must prefer showers.

I also love dust. I mean dusters.


Megan Kerr said...

Oh, Madeline, now that would be telling! It all depends, though, on whether I can find the auto-witter switch... Get a glass of wine in me and you'll witness the full force of Faster-Than-Light Auto-Witter drivel - I mean dribble - dammit, drive, that's what I mean.

Thanks for the explanation, Sacchi - the "t" has been puzzling me for a while. And no, I don't think it's necessarily a "squick" factor - it all depends on how something is used. Anything can be moving, if the characters and story are engaged in it - and anything can have squick value, if it's on the Beavis-and-Butthead level of phner phner - that's dirty. Heh heh. But there's dirty and dirty... Alison - your brand of bright bubbly filth is just delicious, dusters and all (want to pop round and clean my house?) whereas some stuff just feels rather sordid and cheap to me. Oh dear - I can already hear the chorus in favour of all things sordid and cheap ;-)

Alison Tyler said...

I'm sure Jeremy will lead us all in a chorus of "for all things cheap and sordid!" It's in the key of C, right?


P.S. I don't know that you can afford me to come round and get rid of your dust. I'm rather pricey for being this cheap.

Jeremy Edwards said...

I'm sure Jeremy will lead us all in a chorus of "for all things cheap and sordid!"

Nice and loud, everyone . . . so they can hear you in the cheap* seats.

*and sordid

Kristina Lloyd said...

Hello? Hello? Did someone mention cheap and sordid? AT, what was the key again?

Megan Kerr said...

All together now:

All things cheap and so-ordid,
All sextoys large and small -
All things crass and ki-inky,
Kristina has them all.

(Sorry, Jeremy and Alison - your names just didn't scan.)

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Kristina, either you had that picture saved just so you could use it here someday...or it's on your holiday shopping list.

Either one is both intriguing and slightly intimidating. Although I can imagine the tuning fork toy could be both sexy and hilarious, with the right partner.

Alison Tyler said...

(Sorry, Jeremy and Alison - your names just didn't scan.)

We scan just fine if you put us to jingle bells:

"Alison, Jeremy, cheap sex all the day,
Oh, what fun is to fuck in sordid, sordid way


Dayle A. Dermatis said...

I think a good writer could take any of the "tired" tropes and write an incredible story--and I include my fellow Lust Biters in that group of good writers!

As for baths and showers and hot tubs (oh my!), if they weren't such fabulous places, people wouldn't invent waterproof vibrators and waterproof erotica book and...!

Ally said...

So very true Olivia. I can't count how many romance novels I've read in the past where I was so sexually frustrated at the end because I was denied that need to have my hero and heroine come together and express their real passion for each other.

I also like reading an erotic romance novel, that if the sex was removed the story could stand on its own.

Alison Tyler said...

I also like reading an erotic romance novel, that if the sex was removed the story could stand on its own.

Hey Ally,

I like to read the reverse—remove the story and let the sex stand on its own. Or sit down. Or maybe sprawl, you know, on a bed with leopard print satin sheets. Or possibly tie me up...

Oh, god. I'm giddy. Can you tell? It's the Guinness. It's not me. I swear.


Anne Tourney said...

I love this line about your source of inspiration:

. . . a jumble of images, a resonant line, a sense of an issue at the core of the heroine’s life, a scrap of personal philosophy, a need, an academic idea, or a mood, or any mixture of the above . . . .

Every aspiring erotica author, especially those poor souls who've somehow gotten the idea that we write these books for money, should read that.

I agree with you, Olivia; sex matters. It does matter, and perhaps more than any other human experience, sex is where we not only discover who we are, but transcend our day-to-day definitions of who we are. That's why it's always annoyed me that erotica is considered a "genre"; with all of our obsession over sexuality, why do we marginalize it in fiction?

I have to admit, I've been guilty of crowbarring in some sex scenes when I felt like I'd been lagging in that area ("Okay, no one's fucked in the past 3,000 words; time for some boinkage.") But ideally, that flux of sex and story is much more smooth and natural than that.

Yes, sex does matter.

Very much.

Alison Tyler said...

I couldn't find Sex Matters. Only Size Matters.