Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Guest Blog and Book Giveaway by Jessica Ruston - Under the covers; between the covers...


One of the first things people ask me when I describe my novel, Luxury, is ‘is there lots of sex?’. Maybe my friends and acquaintances are just a filthy bunch, but I suspect it’s more universal than that. So, let’s talk about writing sex…
As well as being one of the things everyone asks about, it also seems to be one of the things most writers worry about. Is there too much sex in my book? Not enough? Is it convincing? Is it cringe-making and worthy of winning the Bad Sex Award? Will everyone who reads it think that every bit of sex is autobiographical? And finally, what will my granny think?
Because Luxury is a bit of a ‘blockbuster’ novel – big characters, big swathes of time, lots of juicy betrayal and revenge and passion – people expect it to have plenty of sex, so I’ve had to face up to all the questions above. I don’t have any grandparents, but my father kindly proof-read the text for me, and I seriously considered blacking out ‘certain’ pages with a marker pen. The sex in Luxury tends towards the overblown and over-the-top, but I’m afraid the answer to the penultimate question is, almost certainly, yes. People always assume novels are more autobiographical than not, in my experience, especially first novels, so I expect plenty of raised eyebrows after my friends have read it (However, I would like to state for the record that I have never had sex on the bonnet of a Bugatti Veyron…).
So how do you make sex scenes work as part of a book, rather than ending up with something that feels tacked on and awkward?
On one level, it’s like describing any other sensory experience such as a meal or a sunset. Avoiding cliché and bringing depth and fresh thinking to the matter will help.
But fundamentally, it’s about nailing your characters (so to speak…) Sex scenes are simply an extension of the relationship between your characters. Don’t think of them as ‘sex scenes’ as such, think of them as just another way of showing the ways your characters interact with one another, and another manifestation of their personalities, quirks, strengths and weaknesses.
Also, you don’t have to get too gynaecological about things – in writing, as in life, some of the most highly charged moments take place out of the bedroom, fully clothes. A sex scene doesn’t necessarily have to involve pages and pages of awful adverbs and coy euphemisms, as a lot of what determines whether a sex scene works is in what has happened before the clothes come off. If you have created two characters who live and breathe in your readers’ minds, and a relationship between them that is plausible and real, whether it is a full-blown love affair or a one-night stand, the sexual tension will be felt and the scenes involving sex will succeed. If not, you won’t.
For inspiration, check out India Knight’s The Dirty Bits: For Girls, for warnings of just how bad things can get, read the past winners of the Bad Sex Award…


Do check out Jessica's website! Her first novel, Luxury, is published this Thursday 9th July. For a chance to win a copy simply comment below and a name will be drawn out of a hat - the winner to be announced on Saturday! Sorry, Strictly Writers - yes, that does mean you, Rod - aren't eligible to win!

31 comments:

Samantha Tonge said...

I always get asked that too, Jess!

My dad read my book and we had many a conversation in tears (laughing) at my 'intimate' paragraphs, and it all got a bit 'carry-on' in the end. But at least there wasn't stoney silence!

Great post and best of luck with the publication.

Jessica said...

My dad said 'I do hope that's not you on the front' when he saw the cover (I WISH those were my legs...) and 'rather racy in parts!' after he'd proofed it... But yes, everyone asks....

Samantha Tonge said...

LOL!

Hmm, i liked the cover!

Jessica said...

Yes, I love the cover as well, thanks :)

sarah fox said...

Now, you've got me wondering, Jess...any goldfish, or other such 'tag' for the journalists which will shift your books in shedloads.

Mind you, I think the cover will do that on its own. Really looking forward to reading this.

I hope everyone knows what I mean. Fish don't feature in my sexual dreams!

CarolineG said...

I'm looking forward to reading this too, thanks Jess!

Rebecca Connell said...

I was really cringing at the thought of my father and grandmother reading the sex scenes in my book (my mum wasn't so bad). They didn't specifically mention them, though, so I can only assume they were glossed over. Although my dad did send an email out to all his contacts encouraging them to buy it, and I saw that he had put that it was "rather racy in parts" - aarrghh! The scenes aren't even that explicit.

I must say, I would fight shy of writing very explicit scenes, solely because of my family reading them, which is stupid really. Maybe going over-the-top and melodramatic is the answer. Cue plentiful references to "proud manhoods" etc...

Roderic Vincent said...

It is with great regret that I have to resign as a member of the Strictly Team, effective immediately. The good news is that this makes me eligible to win a copy of your sexy book, Jess. Stick my name in your hat, Sam.

Samantha Tonge said...

Rod, you have to work 3 months notice. I'm giving you a written warning, though - you behaviour is not conducive to a team spirit.

Tom said...

Nice piece, Jess. But what I want to know is: why are male novelists almost always so much crapper at writing about sex than their female counterparts?

Sarah Hilary said...

Great blog, thanks, Jess. I enjoyed that very much. I have to confess to almost enjoying some of the very worst bad sex writing - it's just so mind-boggling. If you add the occasional typo it can enhance the experience, I've found. I once read a scene that described two men regarding a third with "lusty stairs". Beyond price.

RosyB said...

Err...perhaps unsurprisingly, I've had a lot of queries along these lines too. In fact I get the "sooo how did you go about researching fetish clubs?" dot dot dot. The thing is that being a comedy, my book isn't even that sex sceney - bit of a disappointment for those hoping for a titilating and voyeuristic excursion into a "freaky" world - which is just not what I was trying to do at all.

I had a rule of thumb that any sex scenes should be funny or reveal something about character which sounds a bit similar to what you're saying Jess.

Good luck with the book. It is reminding me of those heady days where me and my friends (we were about 13 and felt very naughty and grown-up) were obsessed with Dallas and Dynasty. It would be great to see a real blockbuster for now.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

All so true, Jess - esp the bit about parents reading it! A friend was recently shocked when she read my WIP because of the swearing - 'I've never heard you swear'. I do think though that you shouldn't write about what you don't know - get thee to a Bugatti! ;)

Rosy T said...

It's my Aunt Sybil I worry about. Reading the rude bits, I mean.

I agree completely with what you say, Jess - sex scenes should be just the same as any other sensual experience, and should be all about character. But it's so hard to say anything new about this, of all human experiences. Reach for an image - and the chances are it has not only been used before but reduced to the laughable currency of soft porn.

I was trying to describe a kiss in my latest book and wrote that the inside of the kissee's lips were like wet silk. The insides of lips ARE like wet silk - and the woman doing the kissing works in fabrics so it's an image she'd use. Silk (and the history of the silk industry) features large in the book. But using this image in this context immediately transported the scene into something from Luciuous Lucy Likes Lingerie.

Best of luck with the book, Jess!

Jessica said...

Why are men crapper about writing about sex, Tom? Hmm - serious answer or flippant... ?! If they are, I wonder if it's because they do focus more on the 'mechanics'? Of course now I can't think of any examples, so I will go away and come back when I have done...

Sarah fox - erm, fish? Sorry, am confused...

Rosy - you're quite right, and that's why it's so difficult. It's like sunsets - there's pretty much no point, because it just sounds schlocky and cliched. That's why I think sex scenes are about so much more than the actual 'act' - there's a line in Luxury (I'll try not to give too much away here...) where two characters bump into each other in a corridor and have a brief but quite emotionally charged conversation - as one of them walks past the other to leave the other says 'You still smell the same.' Which for me is quite an intimate and sexually loaded sentence - it says an awful lot, without, on the surface, saying much at all. But it refers to an intimate past, and smell is such an evocative sense that it reminds them, and hopefully the reader, of hundreds of moments shared... Hmm, am babbling on now, but you get the point...

Tom said...

You mean like describing male genitalia as " "leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath"? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/dec/02/awardsandprizes.badsexaward

emmadarwin said...

Great piece, Jess!

I get asked about this a lot too too - though having a story in the In Bed With anthology was kind of asking to be asked...

As you say the key is that it's like any other scene: it needs narrative drive, character and plot development, and writing as intolerant of clichés, overblowness, underwrittenness and so on, as you would be in any other scene. The only difference is that the path between the pitfalls is narrower, and the pits themselves are particularly deep.
You also don't need more of the action than actually serves those purposes: one very common pitfall is to insist on writing the whole damn thing, from first lit candle to last post-coital fag (=US cigarette), despite the fact that there are only two moments of actual change in the whole thing. You wouldn't write every last morsel of a dinner party, after all, and you don't need to either.

In my limited experience, when men write sex badly it's because they lose sight of the characters and affective side of things, and veer towards blow-by-blow (shall we say) literalism, all the way to what I'm told they call the money shot... When women write sex badly it's because they're too conscious that their parents will read it, and take refuge in generalisations and abstractions.

Jessica said...

ha haaa, amazing. Mind you, the 'hybrid wolf/alsation sex' was by a woman..

Tom said...

The lone sex scene I have written in one of my books left quite a bit out PRECISELY because I was worried about my parents reading it. Then again, it did actually feature me.

Samantha Tonge said...

You could always upload it in a comment here, Tom, if you want readers...

:):):)

Tom said...

I think you'd be disappointed. It's in this - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nice-Jumper-Tom-Cox/dp/0552770760/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247055075&sr=1-3 - in a chapter about a teen party. I think the best you could say about it is that it's an impressive exercise in "stripping down the detail" (although not really stripping down anything else).

Hodmandod said...

Josa Young here: I am on my first novel too, and addressed the topic in the Telegraph today http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/5769928/More-sex-please-were-grown-ups.html
Julie Myerson emailed me while she was reading it, saying: "hey i have to say one quick thing: you write sex brilliantly! (hardly anyone does)" Which gave me a lot of confidence.
Now just waiting for the onslaught of the aunts.... Go to www.oneappletasted.co.uk for info.

Samantha Tonge said...

Hey, Josa, that's a great article. And yes, i think many of us forget that our parents were young once, are human, and therefore probably pretty unshockable.

A first draft in 5 weeks, though? What's your secret?!

Hodmandod said...

VERY fast typing and a long period of thought before I got going (while working for a slimming magazine!). Would love to do a guest blog here. any chance?

Samantha Tonge said...

Josa, email me through my profile and i'll get back to you!

sarah fox said...

Goldfish...well, I'm embarrassed to admit that the ref comes from Shirley Conran's book, Lace. This is a quote from the publishers website...


"Ask most women over thirty to name a bonkbuster and this is the one they’ll mention – swiftly followed by memories of one specific ‘goldfish’ scene."

Am I the only one who remembers this? It zoomed to the number one slot, and I'm sure that scene did it!

Jessica said...

oh God of course - no I definitely remember that, I just was reading your comment out of context! Sorry.

Samantha Tonge said...

Um...what happened with the goldfish? I must have led a sheltered life...

sarah fox said...

Sam, I'm not going there - although the goldfish did!

S

Anonymous said...

I would be far too embarrassed to let anyone i know read my writing if it contained sex scenes. I'd probably have to hire a PO box and submit it under a pen name.
Aeriously though, great tips, thanks. Julia Anderson

Bernadette said...

Good advice, Jessica. My (unpublished) novel only has a couple of short sex scenes in it, but I have to admit they were the parts I liked writing least and probably don't work very well. I liked the analogy with describing a meal and I'll bear that in mind when I can stop cringing for long enough to attempt a rewrite.