Friday, February 17, 2012

Be My Guest - Debby Harris

Quis Cetera Nescit? (Ovid:  “Who Does Not Know the Rest?”)

Some years ago, I was invited to speak at the St. Andrews University Science Fiction and Fantasy Society. I had so much fun, I started regularly attending their meetings - and thereby hangs the tale.

During the week of Valentine’s Day, the president of the Society gave a talk on the subject of Sex and Romance in SF/F Literature. The presentation featured a selection of readings from works by Robert Heinlein, Robert Howard, and Anne Rice, among others. Given the fact that many of these passages were uproariously funny when read aloud out of context, I was more than a little taken aback to find myself represented on the agenda by a passage from Spiral of Fire, the third volume of my Garillon trilogy.

In this scene, Margoth, the novel’s leading lady, seduces her beloved and leads him off to bed. The chapter ends thus:

She traced the sharp-cut line of Serdor’s lips, stoking downward to the base of his throat, where she began loosening the laces of his collar. Without releasing her, he said huskily, “If you’re going to keep that up, I won’t be responsible for the consequences.”

“Nothing could please me more than to hear you say so,” Margoth assured him. “Now why don’t I help you off with that shirt…” (dramatically read out as “Dot! Dot! Dot!”)

Much friendly ribaldry greeted my coy use of the ellipsis here and elsewhere–to the extent that I’ve been gun-shy of using the device ever since. But from a writer’s perspective, the central question still remains: when a particular couple are poised to consummate their relationship sexually, at what point do you metaphorically switch off the camera and leave the rest to your reader’s imagination?

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules to go by. (If only there were!) But in my experience, the following questions may have some bearing on the situation:

1) How much emotional groundwork have you previously layered in?
2) What’s the nature of the sexual magnetism between the partners? (I.e., are you dealing with raw hormonal urges or a conjugation of soul-mates?)
3) What factors in the story have prevented the partners from bonding before now? (And what makes NOW the right time?)
4) What other aspects of the story (plot, pacing, character development, theme, etc.) are being served by this event?

Medieval writers used to discriminate between eros (animal passion) and agape (spiritualised love). Although we no longer formally differentiate between these two extremes, there is perhaps an artistic distinction to be made between depicting sex as an end in itself, as compared to depicting sex as the crowning affirmation of a relationship.

In my own work - though I’m not aware of having made a conscious decision in this matter - my standard of practice seems to have been “the baser the passion, the more graphic and detailed the treatment.” In other words, I have fewer inhibitions writing about lust than I have when it comes to depicting romance. Why this is so, I can only speculate, but I suspect that it has something to do with a fuzzy notion that love in its fullest expression is something of a mystery. Thus, drawing a veil over a love scene may sometimes be the best way to preserve the romance.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees. She is also an author with multiple titles to her name. Not one to brag about her accomplishments, we offer you the link to her no-longer-secret webpage.

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  1. Hey Debbie, great post!

    1) You have described my nightmare: having a book published, then having it used in some humiliating fashion. Worst case scenario, the workshop leader holds it up and says, "Now here's what not to do..."

    2) That's what sex needs--hard and fast rules, lol!

    3) I'm the same way re: love and lust. The more graphic the interchange, the more my reader can suspect that this might not be a lasting relationship.

  2. See my comment to the Be My Guest - Susan Malone post.

  3. Hard and fast sex rules - Kathryn, you are a bad girl! LOL. This conversation could quickly get out of hand. I'm going to my corner now. ;)

  4. Oh, and Debby, dear Debby! Fails to mention that she has written dozens of books - I Googled her title because she slyly slid it into her post, only to discover a website with all her books and her husband's and... oh, authors, why art thou so shy, I ask you?

  5. Every time I attempt to write a sex scene, I try to remember Diana Gaboldon's advice: "Sex scenes should be about the exchange of emotion - not bodily fluids."

  6. Debby, this is a great topic. I, for one, why away from writing love scenes! But I know it can be done well, and tastefully.

  7. Elspeth, I heard Diana say that at a workshop, too. Great advice, and probably why I don't like some graphic sex scenes and definitely don't care for erotica.

    Christopher, this is very similar to Susan's post, but from a different genre and perspective. I think it is a good complement to what we read on Wednesday.

    I'm leaving Kathryn's comment alone. LOL

  8. I, too, do not write sex scenes. However, I will write a love scene between a married man and woman — but without specifics. Elspeth said it well when she noted it's the emotions that count. As a reader as well as a writer,I find that implication rather than graphic detail works best for me. I'm not comfortable in the role of a peeping Tom.

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  10. If it's making love, then it's more an exchange of emotions. If it's lust, yes, I expect it to be more graphic. I'm one of the readers who prefer sweet romances over spicy. If the author has done a good job building up to the couple making love, it's a relief that they're finally at it, but I don't really need every little detail of how they do it.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. It's a fine line, but I prefer when authors leave most of it to the imagination. I'm reading a book right now where the author is dancing on the edge, but it's perfect for the kind of book. Any further and I probably wouldn't continue reading (and I'm not really a prude).


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