G or PG or Nothing: Unhappy Readers

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This email came in today:

I started out really enjoying the book Lake in the Clouds, but quickly lost that enjoyment when you described the sex scene. How I wish that all books had a rating like the movies so one’s money would not be wasted. If you have any family rated (G or PG) books please let me know.

A-Would-Be Reader

It’s unfortunate that she started with Lake in the Clouds, as the scenes that (I’m guessing) bother her are (in one case at least) more about violence than sex. I really do try to avoid gratuitous sex scenes. If there’s nothing to be gained in character development or plot, I’ll skip over the details.

So I’m sorry to lose a potential reader, but I don’t really see a way around this conflict. I write the story — which isn’t always pretty — to the best of my ability. Some will like my stuff, and others won’t. Such is the nature of the beast. In the ten or so years since the first novel in the series came out, I’ve had a handful of emails from people who tell me why they can’t or won’t read my work.

There’s was the guy who was outraged that a dog was shot (the many human deaths didn’t seem to bother him); there have been other people who objected to violence or sex. A few people decided they didn’t like me personally and so they don’t want to read my novels. All fair enough. I make similar decisions every day.

On the other hand it wouldn’t occur to me to write to an author and tell her (or him) what steps would be necessary for me to become a faithful reader. I might write and express an opinion, but I can’t imagine telling somebody how to tell a story.

Thoughts?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This excerpt from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart is anything but a typical or generic sex scene.

The two main characters in this historical romance are Stuart Aysgarth, a viscount, and a woman called Emma Hotchiss. Emma has a very shady past but at this point in her life she is an utterly respectable and unremarkable woman who owns a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Stuart gives her cause to seek him out when he causes harm to her livestock, but after getting no satisfaction she takes matters into her own hands. Thus, he catches her in the act of robbing him (I’m simplifying this, please note). So he ties her to a chair to keep her from running off, but more importantly because this is an opportunity he had been hoping for. With her questionable connections and background, she can help him with a problem — or if she prefers, he can call the sheriff.

There is a long, interesting, complex discussion between these two while she’s tied to the chair, business negotiations and personal observations, all fraught with a great deal of sexual tension arising from strong mutual attraction. Emma is experienced and not easily frightened, but she is at a bit of a loss on how to handle Stuart, who tells her she must give up two minutes of her time to experience the personal trespass he has suffered over a longer period.

This initial confrontation, discussion and negotiation takes many pages, and eventually they get to kissing (another couple pages). Remember that Emma is still tied to the chair where this excerpt begins.

Untie My Heart. Copyright Judith Ivory.

Somewhere along the way his hand returned to her knee, light, dry, warm possessive. Just his hand on her knee. For balance. Still, for a second, she knew a tiny panic. He stroked it away. His thumb rubbed the inside of her knee, two soft, short strokes along the bend, the first reassuring, the second bringing such a shocking physical rush of blood to the core of Emma, she nearly lost her breath. Her legs … dear heaven, her legs. She felt all at once exposed … aware how close he was to… well, he could have put his hands, that thumb, those fingers anywhere.

Almost gentlemanly, sweetly, as if he read her mind, he broke away long enough to lean over sideways. With one hand, he yanked at the ties at her legs, ripping them in part, setting her right knee free first –oh, lovely!–coming back to kiss her again briefly–then stopping long enough to lean in the other direction. She lifted her free foot out, straightening her knee to stretch, as he undid her other one. Not that he was letting her free or up exactly, because as soon as her legs were freed, he came back to that astonishing kiss, having her rather trapped against the chair.

Then, the next thing she knew, his hands hooked under her knees, and he lifted her legs up as he moved forward and straddled the chair himself, sitting, while in the same movement lifting, running his hands under her legs down her calves to her ankles. He sat, taking her legs up over his. He still had to bend forward slightly, he was so much taller, but he was less awkward, more comfortable, she thought, sitting on the chair-until he moved forward and brought their bodies close, up against each other. She would have slapped him perhaps. Maybe. Difficult to say, since her hands were still held behind her. In any event, it was a shock at first to feel him — his male body up against her spraddled female one.

He bent forward, kissing her harder. One moment, his hands were at the sides of her, gripping the chair posts over her head. He curved his hips hard against her, and she knew the heady thickness of him. All so oddly familiar, yet not. The next moment, one of his hands was between them, at her waist, then the back of his hand glided down her belly, almost protective. Then he took his hand away–and nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever was between them. Unless one counted something else she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection.

He either knew or was inventing on the spot how to have sexual congress on a chair … they were about to…she was letting him … no, she jerked on her hands, they weren’t free in back….she was his prisoner…wasn’t she? Was she letting him? She wet her lips to say stop. The word didn’t come out. Did she want him to? Now was certainly the moment to say so. Decisions seemed to hang, demanding her attention, yet her brain couldn’t seem to keep up with her body.

She felt herself swollen, lit, as the head of his penis dropped against her. It slid down the length of her in an instant acknowledgement of how ready she was. The warm movement of his hand was there, adjusting himself into position – here was certainly the moment to protest. Did she want to?

Then it was too late to protest anything. With a swift, sure movement of hips, he thrust himself deeply, thickly inside her. Her body all but pulled him into her, swallowing him up. His arms were at either side of her again, enfolding her against the chair, against him, his chest, the spicy-warm smell of him…his strong, muscular shoulders hunched toward her, one hovering at her face till the starchiness of his shirt rose into her nostrils like steam, till she tasted it in her mouth. . . his hips under her, his presence inside her, hot and substantial, driving … intrusive, amazing . . . he lifted into her with a kind of rhythmic spasm that was so satisfying she bit down on his shirt, clenching her teeth. Seconds. It lasted seconds — perhaps three deep, solid stokes of Stuart’s body into hers. While her own contracted around his the moment of entry and simply kept contracting… tighter and tighter and tighter. . . until an explosion… or implosion, things collapsing and shoving and moving inside as she couldn’t remember in years, maybe ever, . . with both herself and Stuart making such noises, mutters, animal sounds, groans.

She came to her senses again like this, her heart pounding with him right there in her face, his body up against her, still inside her.

Two minutes. Had it taken two minutes? Feasible. It was entirely feasible.

When I read this over again I am entirely taken in by Emma’s voice, her very distinctive voice as we follow her thoughts through this scene. She’s such a down-to-earth, practical woman, unprepared but not particularly upset by Stuart’s direct approach. More upsetting to her is her own inability to produce the reactions she knows she supposed to have. She’s supposed to not want this; she should be protesting. But her body has the upper hand, and her body wants Stuart, and she goes along for the ride, amazed, dumbfounded, but absolutely able to acknowledge the pleasure it brings her. This has nothing to do with love; she never even thinks about that.

The approach here is very explicit: we see what Emma sees, and feel what she feels. Every one of Stuart’s actions is recounted, but in rather sober, vaguely surprised language. She registers things: the shock of his body against hers, the familiarity of a male body still after a long dry spell, and a very calm assessment of his body in a state of sexual arousal. What kind of woman, in this situation, thinks a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection. Notice the juxtaposition of the sensible observation (capable) with the appreciative one (perfectly beautiful).

She debates with herself what she wants, and her role in this whole business. I’ve read this many times to see if I could talk myself into believing that she is being abused or raped, but I can’t see it. She knows perfectly well how to stop him, considers doing that, and doesn’t. She never makes a direct and conscious decision to go ahead and have sex with the man; it’s more of a decision she makes by letting opportunities slip by. Once the act has actually begun, she’s caught up in the physical sensations, and they are provided for us in detail: the things she smells, tastes, feels, sees.

Her final thoughts — Two minutes? Entirely feasible are completely in character, and perfectly caught.

I’ve wondered too what to make of the lack of dialog between them in these two minutes — they certainly chatter away in the first twelve or so pages of the scene, and now complete verbal silence. This experience is for Emma a fairly solitary one; if she looks into Stuart’s eyes we don’t know about it; it’s all about what’s going on inside her own head and her own body.
Has Emma changed in the course of this encounter, has the narrative shifted? That’s something you’d have to decide for yourself by reading the whole novel, but I think that this is in fact a turning point for her, and for Stuart.

I think I like this and find it to be successful because it is unique and unusual and evocative. I’m curious what y’all think.

playfulness

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Robyn pointed me to a LiveJournal entry by Jane St. Clair which contemplates Farscape (most particularly the relationship between Aeryn and John), and heterosexual relationships across genres. The issues have to do in the first line (but not exclusively) with the wide wide world of fan fiction (if you go have a look, don’t be startled at the word “slash” — it’s not about knives).***

She writes:

[…] I demand more stories in which people have bad first sex.

(For some strange reason, my urge to write an long series of tales in which people have extremely bad sex. So awful that they never want to see each other again. But it doesn’t really satisfy anyone but me. No one expects their porn to include, “Can we stop? You’re on my hair.”)

This made me laugh, but it also made me think. Do I always leave out the not-so-nice parts about two people getting together? I think the closest I come to writing about a relationship that begins with a really rocky ride is in Fire Along the Sky, but I can’t say more here without giving a major plot line away. So this is something I will continue to think about. Maybe when FAS comes out this summer people will have an opinion on this.

The other thing that really struck me was this:

My beloved Shakespeare prof spent a long time reconciling us to the notions of love the plays offered, which often didn’t sync well with our own. What she led us to was the recognition that the strongest sign of love or affection is play. Sometimes teasing (Much Ado About Nothing) or wordplay (The Taming of the Shrew — she had us quite convinced that Katherina didn’t mean a word of her final speech on the place of women, that it was all humorously ironic and meant for Petruchio’s amusement), or gameplay (The Tempest). But in most modern portrayals of love, we go for either deep drama (angst) or domestic tranquility (curtainfic), leaving no space for a healthy relationship interesting enough to hold its audience.

Jane St. Clair has put her finger on something here. My sense is that sex takes second seat to playful banter for many of my readers. It certainly does for me. But how it all these elements work together — playfulness, drama, tranquility — that’s something to contemplate for a good while.

***I’ve got a longer entry on fan fiction I’ve been working on for a while. Hope to post it soon.