Monday, September 10, 2012

Bad sex writing... or rotten erotica


With FIFTY SHADES OF GREY such a huge sensation, erotic fiction is the zeitgeist of the day (or is it night?. Not that erotica was ever out of favor per se (I’m sure Erica Jong still outsells George Will), but now more than ever the genre is selling through the roof.

I have never written this form of literature. Not even in an AfterMASH script. Every year some organization comes out with a list of the worst sex scenes in novels and they are excruciatingly uproarious. And it’s sooo easy to fall into that trap. You try to create this turgid mood and be descriptive, but you also try to be original – find new ways to convey sexual acts. Which can lead to a passage like this:

From Ed King by David Guterson:

"In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn't take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch."

Yikes!  And major authors are not immune from writing truly klutzy sex scenes. The great John Updike:

She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. He had wanted to cry out, sitting up as if jolted by electricity as the spurts, the deep throbs rooted in his asshole, continued, but he didn't know what name to call her. 'Mrs Rougement' was the name he had always known her by.

I’m not sure if I could write one of these passages without a voice in the back of my head saying, “This is the Springtime for Hitler of sex scenes.”

Several renown romance writers read this blog. Somehow they know how to walk that fine line between erotica and Letters to HUSTLER. So some questions to them (and you):

How do you avoid cliches?

Is it possible to write a sexy novel without using the word throbbing at least once?

Comedy writers rarely laugh at what they’ve written. Do romance writers get turned on by their work?

Do editors give you a lot of notes? If this was television, you’d be getting notes like, “Do we like him when he chains her naked to his car?” “Instead of an ice cube, could she use a cold pack?”

Do you need to get in the mood? With my training in television where we're always up against a deadline, I’ve learned to just sit down and crank it out. Can you do that with erotica? Can you drop off the dog to the groomer, pick up the cleaning, come home, empty the dishwasher, then sit down and write TROPIC OF CANCER?

At what point do you realize that imagery is not your friend?

What do you think of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY?

Those are few things I’ve wondered about. Let me know if any erotica writer has a blog with Friday Questions.

But it’s definitely an art. A good sex scene can get you really aroused. More than just watching porn, written material taps into your imagination and can heighten the experience. Unfortunately, if not written well, you’re left with this.

Here are a few more samples of scenes that make me laugh, cringe, and worry I couldn’t write any better:

From Sashenka, by Simon Montefiore:

His hands pulled her dress off her shoulders and he buried his face in her neck, then her hair, scooping up between her legs. He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. 'The blue veins are divine,' he whispered. And in that moment, a lifetime of unease about this ugly feature of her body was replaced with satisfaction. He licked them, circling her nipples hungrily. Then he disappeared up her skirt.

From To Love, Honour and Betray, by Kathy Lette

I kissed his mouth ravenously, devouring his neck, earlobes, chest. He broke free with muscular ease, unhooked my bra with composed expertise, found my nipple and flicked his tongue back and forth until it went hard. His towel fell away. Sebastian's erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town.

And finally, from another not-too-shabby writer, Paul Theroux:

'Baby.' She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja - pray, pray at my portal.'  She was holding my head, murmuring 'Pray,' and I did so, beseeching her with my mouth and tongue, my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer. It had always worked before, a language she had taught me herself, the warm muffled tongue.


Anonymous said...

"He broke free with muscular ease, unhooked my bra with composed expertise"

Ah, the missing lines from the 'George Of The Jungle' theme song...

An (is my actual name) said...

"Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch."

OMG-- Best line of the lot. Full stop, end story right there.

Anonymous said...

From Jan:

Thanks for the laugh to start my day. Soooo funny! Even not-so-great writers that are fun to read (as in mysteries) seem to feel that you HAVE to have a sex scene every so often (I'm thinking of one in particular who shall remain nameless here). I'm not sure what they're going for, but I'm sure my reaction is not what they wanted. Your examples were priceless.

Tiffany said...

Hi Ken!

BDSM erotica writer Tiffany Reisz here. I'm a big believer in less is more even in my erotic scenes. Less excruciating detail, more meaningful dialogue and emotion.

Rarely if ever do I get turned on by my scenes. Although one scene I wrote a long time ago caused me to get so randy I booty called a high school friend and made a ten-year old fantasy of his come true. ;)

Fun post! Nice to know even the greats are bad in bed.

Tiffany Reisz, author of THE SIREN from Mira Books

lucidkim said...

"I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town." hahahahaha

Carol said...

@ Tiffany Reisz

I have to know; have you read 50 Shades and if so, how do you feel about it? I don't personally classify it as 'erotic' (I don't even classify it as a book). It's more like an attempt at romance with sex thrown in, rather than real erotica.

People I know who are versed in the BSDM lifestyle have said that James totally doesn't get the BSDM thing right at all. What do you think?

PS: I am TOTALLY buying your books.

bostonian said...

No one can write sex scenes like Judith Krantz. Part of the style of books she writes - all strong women who overcome something to get success at the end.

Johnny Walker said...

Haha! Hilarious stuff. A friend of mine always wanted to write a book of deliberately bad erotica. She gave me some great examples, too. I wish she'd do it, especially now it's become so popular.

Unrelated note: I'm going to be in LA from the 16th of September until mid October if any Sitcom Room veterans want to catch up!

Unknown said...

I have read a few romance novels and I've noticed that the heroine is always a shy bookworm who is self-conscious about her body because either (a) her chest is too big or (b) she is too petite and boyish. Romance writers... why? Do we think these are the only people that read these novels?

Great post, Ken! Those passages truly made me cringe.

Mike Bell said...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But her hand on his throbbing manhood soon pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind."

Tiffany said...

@ Carol!

Hi Carol!

Hope, haven't read 50 Shades. I've read just enough (3 paragraphs) to know it's not erotic and it's not for me. Sounds like a 14 year old girl wrote it - a dumb one. ;)

Hope you like the books. I pull no punches. I do kink so I know the world. It's pretty gritty at times but always consensual.


PolyWogg said...

My favorite erotica line is from an old Johnny Carson skit where they had audience members (and probably some of their writers) write some lines:

"I've never done this before, she said as she undid the buttons on his shirt with her tongue."


By Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Tiffany.

You meet the most interesting people on my blog!

poityu said...

More than a decade ago, romance writer Catherine Coulter was doing workshops where she read examples of poorly written sex scenes. She told participants that if they couldn't imagine reading the scene out loud, then the work needed to be revised. I always thought the workshop was also an indirect message to Silhouette and Harlequin editors to do a better job.

@Johnny Walker -- For a book with bad sex scenes and suburban mayhem, get a copy of Naked Came the Stranger. It was a hoax book where a group of people wrote the chapters, then one person fronted as the author "Penelope Ashe."

An aside -- proving I'm not a robot seems particularly tricky today.

chuckcd said...

You left out the best part...
"No, I mentioned the bisque."

ScottyB said...

I've always thought erotica is something really tough to write, for the reasons/examples Ken put out there. Sex (especially really GREAT sex) is something that just defies description. Sorta like sitting here today watching the newsreel footage of The Hindenburg Disaster with the breathless horrified "Oh the humanity!!" newsguy -- you just go, "Ah well, guess you had to be there."

ScottyB said...

Ken: If you think Updike had it tough (and your example was the best he could muster), imagine the big-ass headache Shakespeare must have been going thru back in the day.

poityu said...

@Jill Pinnella Corso

A lot of romance heroines are readers, but I wouldn't say bookworms dominate the genre. Jayne Krentz is a former librarian and does like smart readers for heroines. She also likes women who have professional competency.

There are certain situations that are often used as a plot basis, so lots of romances are about two people thrown together because they're competing guardians for children, or co-workers (although generally the woman is an office worker, not a boss), or a one-night stand leads to pregnancy, or some crisis links the characters together (a favorite ploy for many, including Rachel Lee and Stephanie Laurens).

The beautiful body that the heroine doesn't know she has is a recurring theme, but I don't think it dominates the genre. It seems more common in the low-end books. While beauty is a given for the heroine, the old Silhouette Intimate Moments line novels had a more representative cross-section of American women as heroines, for instance.

There is wide variation in character types in romances, from virgin heroines and (a few) heroes to experienced heroines and heroes. The one characteristic that seems common to them is that they are good at what they do, whether it is caring for children, being loyal to their families, or working. Carole Mortimer is one notable exception. She does seem to have a lot of women in offices who aren't good at office work, but they are portrayed as having much more emotional IQ than the heroes they are matched with.

Eric J said...

Not to be a suck up or anything, but the best critique of 50 Shades of Grey was written by Ken Levine on August 14th in his outline of a book from Christian's perspective.

Check out Susie Bright's blog and book, "How to Write a Dirty Story". She's been around erotica publishing for a long time.

Tom Quigley said...

How about a person with a Ph.D. in topography and geology trying to write erotica:

"He tenderly explored the depths of my Marianas Trench while I longingly, feverishly ached for him to Mount Rushmore..."

Anonymous said...

Damn! It's like somebody was taking notes in my bedroom last Thursday.

Bill McCloskey said...

"Can you drop off the dog to the groomer, pick up the cleaning, come home, empty the dishwasher, then sit down and write TROPIC OF CANCER?"

I think that is exactly what Henry Miller did. While he was writing Tropic of Cancer he worked as the live in "slave" for a guy who provided room and a few scraps of food and doing the dishes, and the laundry was all part of it.

Miller is great when writing sex scenes. And I don't think he ever used the word "throbbing"

Unknown said...

I totally stole this from Decadent by Shayla Black on but it's too amazing not to pass it on...

"He tilted her up again, her legs now resting on his shoulders, and positioned himself and began to push.

Into her back entrance.

Kimber drew in a great, shocked gasp, her hazel eyes wide. “Deke?”

“What the hell are you doing?” Luc barked.

Tensing a little more with every inch he pushed inside Kimber’s tight passage, the tendons on his neck standing out, the muscles in his arms shaking, assailed by the amazing sensations of being slowly enveloped by her tight, ready flesh, Deke could barely form a word. “Fucking her ass. Saving her life.”"

I could explain the back story but is it really necessary?

@ Tiffany Reisz: I love your website! I am a budding erotica writer (19 erotic short stories on you have any advice?

@ Ken: I answered your questions on my blog:
Check 'em out!

Unknown said...

@poityu -
You know your stuff! Are you a writer or fan?

Good point about the similar plots.

I guess I've been found out as being more interested in laughing at the ridiculous similarities than really getting to the bottom of the issues.

One of these days I'll have to read an actually good romance novel to see the difference.

Anonymous said...

You asked: Comedy writers rarely laugh at what they’ve written. Do romance writers get turned on by their work?

I once had a patient who presented with a blood clot in her leg. She told me she had been sitting for hours writing the sex scene of her script. The intense arousal caused pelvic vascular congestion that led to venous pooling and...well, you get the idea. Who says writing isn't a risky business?

Tracy St. John said...

I always feel it when I write a sex scene. I think my work is an utter failure if I don't...unless the scene is supposed to be a failure for the characters. As Updike said, "Writing my sex scenes physically excites me, as it should."

Those are some hilarious examples though. I can't imagine getting all warm inside writing those, but hey, whatever gets the juices flowing. Creative juices, that is.

Eileen K. said...

Back in the '80s, my dad, a devout Catholic, read one of Father Andrew Greeley's potboilers to see what all the fuss was about. After reading what was supposed to be a steamy, explicit passage, Dad said, "Now we know for sure that he hasn't violated his vow of celibacy."

Beth Ciotta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MrEd said...

These excerpts take me back to Koko the Clown in the movie "The Groove Tube". He read scenes from Fanny Hill to the kiddies while the parents were out of the room.

Gary Theroux said...

Gee. Did a Theroux really write that?

XJill said...

@ Carol..."(I don't even classify it as a book)" LMAO.

I read so much great fanfiction that is well written and turns me on that 50 Shades annoys me so much. SO MUCH.

Anonymous said...

The Paul Theroux entry wasn't that bad.
And given that he was describing two Indians thoughts during sex, it was probably very accurate.

bootsie said...

"...he looked at Laquisha with a certain glance, and she knew what was up. He penetrated that cooch with his BBC and proceeded to hit it so hard you would have thought it owed him back the time Latonya walked into the room Tyrone had pretty much destroyed that thang...Latonya surveyed the room, found the butt oul she was looking for, and then proclaimed, "I'M NEXT n***a!"

Anonymous said...

This had me howling! Emotion definitely draws you in, not play-by-play, blow-by-blow. So, would you characterize hardcore writing as smut?