Friday, January 31, 2014

Sex and Writing Romance Novels

Venus and Cupid by Lambert Sustris

It’s almost time for Valentine’s Month and once again, we plan to focus on the romance genre. Well, we might even get a bit spicier than that and explore the topic of sex in literature. Let this be a GRAPHIC CONTENTS warning of things to come, readers!

I've been thinking a lot about romance novels over the past few months, though not exactly by intent. Researching a mystery series, my male protagonist took over and the plot began to take a decidedly sensual turn. He was so fixated on his heroine that I decided to write a standalone novella dealing strictly with the romance he was having with this new-found love. I realized the real stories in the mystery books wouldn't get told until their love life was a bit more settled.

As I wrote scene after increasingly torrid love scene, I started thinking a lot about human sexuality, sexual objectification, and the differences between romance, erotica, and pornography. I have an education in fine arts, and with it comes a fairly strong and informed understanding of erotica vs. pornography. Here’s what I believe:

Erotica includes a graphic depiction of the human form, but it always incorporates beauty and perhaps even love. Pornography has one goal: to provide intense sexual arousal to the viewer and it is often exploitative and even degrading. Both erotica and pornography leave me with the question: where is the love? That’s something I've had to explore with my own novel, scene upon scene, chapter after chapter. Where is the love? If it isn’t strongly present, it means a revision. I won’t allow sex without love in my stories. 

I've had to analyze my characters, their actions, and their words over and over. Romance requires constant rewriting as the story progresses. I’m still not finished. I’ll dial back the sizzle in some sections to give the reader a bit of a reprieve, and I’ll get more graphic in other scenes because the actions will have to reflect that particular stage of relationship development. It's not an easy process. Love never is.

Are you wondering just how much graphic content is appropriate for a romance? There are plenty of levels. Traditional Regency romance is fairly tame. Modern erotic romance ramps up the heat level depending on certain elements included in the writing. There are many guidelines for writers, but my favorite is the Sensuality Ratings Guide from All About Romance. Do link over to read the descriptions.

I don’t know at this point what level of romance this novella will be when it's finished. My version isn't included in the ratings above – certainly the term “romantica” fits to a certain extent, but my characters don’t use “code words” or euphemisms in their lovemaking and conversation… because that’s an aspect of romance writing I dislike. I especially don’t care for vulgar terminology, and blessedly, neither do my characters, especially my male protagonist.

On the other hand, I'm not crazy about a lot of frou frou poetic description of lovemaking either. The idea of arching toward cosmic oneness and crashing into a universal abyss together just leaves me scratching my head. What exactly did that feel like? Give me a better description, and try not to sound so insipid while you're at it!

Moreover, I've discovered I have a deep respect for love and sex that is coming across in my writing – so much so that I've had to include aspects of eastern philosophy into sex scenes, because at the core of philosophies like Tantra is the belief that sex is a sacred act – indeed, the deepest kind of love. I’ll touch on that a bit more in another post, after my characters are more experienced themselves. At the moment, they are still exploring new ideas and each other.

What about you, readers? Do you read the romance genre? Write it? How much sex can you handle? Are there specific aspects or practices that repel you? What kind of romance makes you feel good? Did this post make you squirm? Why or why not? Please leave me a comment!


Dani Greer is founding member of this blog, hopelessly trapped in a submissions mailbox sorting through manuscripts, dreaming of planting gardens and knitting socks, while watching with dismay as more snow begins to fall. Suffice it say say, she is ready for a change of season.

28 comments :

  1. Very interesting post, Dani. I, too, don't care for a sex scene without love, and I like that you pointed out the sacredness of sex. My late-husband and I once attended a seminar that explored that connection and it was quite enlightening. It included a funny cartoon of God talking to a man about what he could do with that penis God had given him. It was so hilarious, and underscored the whole theme of the seminar. The Puritans gave sex a really bad rep.

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  2. I used to read Barbara Cartland and Historical romance as a teenager. I read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, more than once. But it didn't take me long into adulthood to grow bored with Romance and I've never been interested in erotica. Love is far more complex than romance and different personality types find different things romantic. Not everyone is into cards and flowers. I'm not averse to a love interest in another genre, such as mystery or thriller. I do like literary stories about love that show it in all of it's complexities. Falling in lust is easy. Growing love by overcoming life's obstacles is hard work and I'd rather read about that. I'm obviously in the minority because Romance and Erotica are the hottest selling genres, though there has been recent backlash against publishers producing Erotica - in e-book and print form. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if 50 SOG had been written by a man. Would it have been embraced or condemned?

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    1. You are not alone in not wanting to read erotica or really steamy romance. When friends first introduced me to romance novels in the late 70s, I read some but I always had a sense of voyeurism while reading. I did enjoy some of the historical romances, for the stories and the history, but I would skip the sex scenes. I don't want to watch my neighbors having sex, so I really don't want to see characters on screen or in books having sex. To me that is a private thing between the couple involved.

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    2. I'm with you on this, Maryann!

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    3. Exactly, Maryann, it's an invasion of privacy. I never want to feel like a peeping Tom when I read a book (or any other time), which is why I quit reading Nora Roberts several years ago.

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    4. For me also. That is more intimate than I need to interact with a stranger. I get that people have sex. I appreciate passion, but when it comes down to choreography and nuts and bolts of how they have sex, that is TMI.

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  3. Dani, I'm about as comfortable writing sensual scenes as a teenager at a junior-high school dance ... since, as they say, sex sells, this could help explain why my stuff doesn't.

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    1. I'm not comfortable with writing it either, Christopher, although I have had love scenes in a few of my books. When it is my turn to blog on this theme this month, I may explore that dichotomy a bit. Maybe it will be helpful to other writers who are not comfortable with writing sex scenes.

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    2. Oh, Christopher. I can well imagine you laughing through everything including a hot date. Bless your sweet soul. I hope your wife appreciates your unique gifts!

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    3. Maryann, a great love scene is a work of art. Sex scenes appeal to baser instincts that fall far short of anything artistic in my opinion. I'll be interested in reading your take on that topic.

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  4. Hi, Dani interesting blogpost. I write romantic suspense and mystery, and I'm torn on this topic. I think it depends on the book, the pacing and how the author sets it up. As you state, your protagonist is fixated on a character, so you incorporate motivation into your novella.

    My thinking is when a sex scene is thrown in when the author has not set it up becomes gratuitous. You cite good examples defining erotica and pornography.

    As a victims advocate I have a hard time with books that degrade women and call that erotica. I've seen the real thing and it's anything but. Thanks for the interesting topic.

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    1. I also write romantic suspense and mystery. The biggest difference when I'm writing is that the sex is on the page in the romantic suspense, but not in the mysteries. However, I contend I write love scenes, not sex scenes.

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  5. I have to mention that, as writers, we wield a huge amount of influence over the public with what we present to them. I find more and more in my writing, that I challenge the sexual mores I grew up with. The sixties challenged us to think outside of that off-balance Puritan structure that Maryann mentioned, but the dive to the opposite extreme was decidedly dark... and I don't believe we've reached a balance point again. I think about that a lot as I'm writing. Love the comments so far. Don't stop. More! ;)

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  6. This post has truly gotten me thinking, Dani. Is it possible, perhaps, that as writers, we need to be comfortable with our sexuality and all it entails before we can write about our characters'?

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  7. Oh, gee... minor details, Elspeth. LOL. I seem to be quite comfortable with body parts and that's an interesting insight, and not something I ever really thought about, I guess. But I'm also learning a lot, if you recall our conversations on Nag Sisters. You know, the sexual energy is so fundamentally linked to creativity - that's something we should write about. From my own experiences, when I'm deep into a creative project, my sex drive diminishes. My husband is even worse. I think many artists are like this. We might want to write about that in a future post.

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    1. I know back in my theatre days, during the weeks of rehearsal I was exhausted by the time I returned home. Different story completely once the performance run started! Oh, that adrenaline...it doesn't fizzle for some time after the curtain falls. (for me, anyway)

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  8. I'm the tart here. I write sex. I've written three erotica romances that were published by erotic romance epublishers, two of the best, in my opinion. Note the word "romance." That, by genre definition, has an ending where the male and female wind up together, in love. Those are written under a pseudonym. My romantic suspense novels also have sex, some more, some less, but every relationship ends on a positive note. I will not write anything demeaning toward women, but I did write one where there was a double story, 1910 and present day, that shifted back and forth with a BDSM element. The characters were also mid forties. There was a lesson in one story and a lot of fun in the other.

    Writing or not writing sex should be something the author is comfortable doing. Nothing should be forced, and the situations should be natural. I also think there should be a story, something many erotic novels give short shrift to if favor of sex for sex sake. My erotic romances have the same multiple storylines my suspense novels do. THEY ARE MUCH HARDER TO WRITE, which is why there will be only one more.

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  9. Interesting post, Dani, and love all this commentary. I write in a range of genres with romantic undertones (not specifically "romance"), and I feel like I need to stay true to my characters. So I'm fairly comfortable writing what the story calls for. Sometimes it's a kiss and close the door. Sometimes we see more. Although I've always thought that more interesting than the sex act is what leads up to the moment and what happens afterward. There is good potential for character development.

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    1. So true, Laurie! Lovemaking is constant, with the act itself lasting 5-6 minutes - or 3-4 if you're an Englishman. ;) It's the ongoing interaction between characters and all their senses that is most important. And I think that's where dysfunction occurs as well, and where love begins to diminish. When the quiet looks and touches outside of the bed (or wherever) become less frequent. So important to write that into the novel as well as into a life!

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  10. When it comes to romance and sex in fiction, I find I enjoy it more when the writer leaves a lot to the imagination. We all have our own unique ideas of what is or is not romantic or sexy. That's all very personal, and so when the author leaves certain details out, I think the reader fills those gaps with her or her own fantasies.

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  11. My most popular blog post is this one and I'm sure it's simply because the word sex is in the title: http://www.randyattwood.blogspot.com/2013/02/sex-matters-erotic-excerpts-from-five.html

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  12. Dani, unleashed! To each her/his own. I'm for the behind closed doors approach. I already know what happens and don't need it spelled out. lol

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    1. I'm guessing everyone's experience is a bit different, so the "knowing" will be too. I think the music analogy is aptly applied to love and sex - many different kinds of experience and preference. Even a country girl can jazz it up!

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  13. An interesting post that I enjoyed reading.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

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  14. I write romantic suspense and want to add something that hasn't been discussed yet. Sex, and the way characters approach it, is another way of adding depth to them as people. Characterization deals with many aspects of personality and sex is definitely part of that. To ignore a character's sexuality is to paint an incomplete portrait.

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  15. And we'll be dealing with exactly that in our Monday post, Harriet! I so totally agree with you. We'll cover a few other aspects of this topic between now and Valentine's Day. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

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  16. I write romance, with pretty graphic sex scenes. The novels are contemporary and deal with plenty of big issues but the characters are in college and like sex. I struggle with this all the time. Should I take the sex out? Should I leave it as detailed and, honestly, vulgar as it is at times? My biggest argument for it is that I was twenty once. Most of the girls I knew were into dirty talk and somewhat raunchy sex, but they were into it with their boyfriends. That's a part of the exploration for me. The good girl who's not so good in a loving relationship. On the other hand, there's a difference between exploring sexuality in a relationship and degrading women and love. I want to write about people who can balance being in love with being dirty, without making the story about degradation or forced sex. There is too much of that in romance these days. I guess I feel like the options tend toward explicit rape or off camera sex. What's wrong with hot sex with someone you love and who loves you in return?

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  17. Nothing. What's wrong with hot sex with someone you just like and respect? Maybe nothing. But in today's world, and what I think about a lot as a writer, is how much reality we should add - about health issues, for example. Nobody needs to become a disease vector engaging in casual sex. It's a tough topic to address these days. Victorian sex was so much less complicated! LOL.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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