Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sex Scene Writing Tips from an Asexual Woman

Okay, so I kinda lied there in my title. I'm not really going to give you sex scene writing tips.

Well, not really. But yes, kind of.

What I would like to talk about here is writing the unfamiliar. In my experience, people react one of two ways when I tell them yes, I am an asexual author who's written characters who have sex.

Option A: If your sex scene is any good, you're actually writing about your own secret desires.

Option B: If you don't have your own desires, you can't write a good sex scene.

Both options are misleading at best, offensive at worst.

First of all, non-authors often expect us to "write what we know" and nothing else. And they think we can't possibly be good at it if we're not writing characters who are avatars of ourselves. They believe our fictional people are mouthpieces for our beliefs or experiences. Of course, most of us authors know that couldn't be further from the truth. Characters are generally about what THEY want. They may reflect on us or represent us somewhat--sometimes more explicitly than other times, depending on the author and the type of story--but suggesting an author cannot write a character who is not "really" themselves is a huge insult to us. What is our craft if it doesn't incorporate what it would be like to be someone else?

But what's really going on here? What are we "allowed" to write about if we haven't been through it? Fantasy writers write the unfamiliar all the time, and I promise you no one has ever told me I can't be writing a good fairy character if I have never performed magic spells or if I don't secretly wish I could go to magic school. However, that's maybe a bit of a false equivalence. If I'm actually changing the laws of reality or creating a type of creature that doesn't exist in our world, readers understand it's just make-believe and they don't hold it to any standards of objective reality. But if I write a sex scene? Oh, apparently that's ridiculous.

The problem: Those who fall under Option A or Option B think empathy and imagination will short out at the border between reality and fantasy. 

Even though I've demonstrated I can tell a pretty convincing story about what it's like to be a fairy school student, these same people who were enthralled by it are still telling me they don't believe I can write something real-world style that I've never done (or convincingly relay the emotions, desires, physical mechanics, or interaction that surrounds it). I can certainly admit it's easier to write an experience that no one has had, so you can't really get called out on doing it wrong and they basically have to believe it is as you say it is in your fantasy book. But--as presented in the comic above--I've been successful plenty of times in portraying an experience others have had but I have not. People who read my fantasy webcomic have occasionally been shocked that I'm not a mom, because I talk about pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing in an intimate way, letting you inside this mother character's head. It's pretty easy to mess it up if you haven't done it, sure, but nobody's ever complained about it seeming inauthentic. And especially if it's a sensitive issue--like trying to write about being a religion, race, sexual orientation, or gender you've never been--getting it wrong can be really offensive, not to mention just plain ineffective.

So, what should you do if you want to write the everyday unfamiliar?

  1. Seems obvious, but do research. By this I mean you want the objective, physical facts so you don't get anything laughably wrong. If you write a sex scene and get an anatomical fact wrong, you'll show your ignorance. If you write a pregnancy that ends at six months and the baby isn't premature, you fail. If your character is a mountain-climber whose equipment is portrayed as doing things it doesn't actually do, readers won't trust your presentation of the experience. So know the actual basics to the unfamiliar thing you're writing about. Sometimes you can ask questions in places like this Absolute Write subforum for research.

  1. Also a bit obvious: get personal reflections and perspectives from people who have had the experience you haven't. If you know someone who's done what you haven't done, you'd be surprised what kind of authenticity you can pick up just through having one conversation with them about it. If you don't know anyone who's had that experience or don't feel comfortable talking to them about it (or they don't want to share with you!), try reading blogs or stories on the topic. And though I probably don't have to say this, make sure you don't swipe any really specific details about their experience for inclusion in your story without their permission. Soak up their perspectives but don't just parrot them.

  1. And still a tad obvious: get test readers whose perspective is appropriate for your work. After you've written it, consider specifically soliciting beta readers who can help you fine-tune using their unique outlook. If you've already written it, it's a bit late for cleaning up the big stuff--like whether the premise is even physically possible or whether the plot of the book is even legal in the country you set it in, etc.--but for smaller things like how your characters react and little nuances, the test readers can be super helpful. Are you an adult writing a teen protagonist and haven't been around teens for a while? Get a teenage reader and ask them to keep an eye out for all the places it feels like an adult who's faking it. Are you a thriller writer whose protagonist is a cop and you've never been in law enforcement? See if you can find a police officer to read it, and you might be surprised the kinds of things your cops are doing that cops wouldn't actually do, from situations where they'd carry a weapon to whether they'd be able to enter without a warrant. Are you a woman writing a man? A white person writing an Asian person? A straight person writing a gay person? A healthy person writing a character with an illness? Gather perspectives. And while you shouldn't let them tell you how to write it (because they may think their experience is definitive of the overall experience of people in their demographic or group when it isn't, or you might be writing a person who's an exception), you should very seriously consider their opinion if their experience is closer to your character's experience than yours is.

  1. Now moving on to the not so obvious: keep in character. This is easier said than done if you are writing about an experience you haven't had, because you're likely to lean on other people's versions of those experiences, but you need it to be your character's experience. Let the characters' personalities lead you into an expression of their inherent characteristics in these experiences as well as the ones you're not as confident in. For example, I generally don't write "romance," but sometimes my characters have experienced love and romantic attraction, and I gravitate toward writing intellectual characters. Because of that, their expression of romance and even sexual interaction has been a bit more cerebral than you'd see in a typical "romantic" book; my characters might overthink kissing and analyze their intimacy and fixate on mental rather than emotional experiences with their significant others. They can't suddenly drop their usual inclinations just because they're in the throes of passion, though excitement and attraction might change how it's filtered. It's just very important that who your characters are outside of the unfamiliar experiences is consistent with who they are inside of those experiences. Don't be tempted to replace the less familiar with scenes that are essentially copy-pastes from the research you've done, the blog posts you've read, or the recommendations of your readers. These scenes have to come from your characters if you want them to read as internally authentic.

  1. And finally, leave things unsaid. Some authors are obsessed with squeezing in the details to show off their research and really nail the unfamiliar topic, so they end up overwhelming the reader with unnecessary information. Truth is, if a reader has done the thing you're describing, they don't need the recitation before they'll fill in the blanks themselves, and if a reader has not done the thing you're describing, it's probably better that they don't learn about it from you. On the few and far between occasions where I've had to write a sex scene, I left a lot to the imagination--not only because I really don't want to write explicit erotica or porn, but because implying goes a long way. There aren't too many adult readers who'd be puzzled when I write that my characters decided against having sex because they didn't have a condom but they did "other things." Do I really have to tell you what they did? Unlikely. First of all it doesn't actually matter, story-wise, what my characters did in bed, and secondly, if people interpret what they may have done different ways, it doesn't change how the story moves on from there, so why not let them imagine? I don't have to lead them by the hand through all the details of this scene, and if they wanted an erotica book, they definitely shouldn't have picked up mine. Similarly, a character can go hang-gliding in a book without you as the author explaining how all the mechanics work; if a person really wants to know that, they probably need a hang-gliding instruction manual, not a book that ultimately isn't about hang-gliding. Same way I'm going to leave it to readers who want a step-by-step set of sex instructions to pick up the Kama Sutra.

Ultimately your goal is to make the scenes that depict the unfamiliar read just as naturally as the scenes that depict the familiar. So you should treat them the same. Soak up what you may need to know before you are qualified to present this experience, immerse yourself in your character's perspective, and proceed as if you are familiar with this experience. Don't give more detail to these scenes or write them with a different style, and do let the characters have their experiences with confidence. As long as you haven't made any contradictions to reality (assuming you're writing reality), and you've made your characters' experiences internally consistent, the reader should be able to believe you.

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